The Paradox of Apology
It was about 10:30pm when my phone buzzed with a text message from a colleague: “Tim, we’ve got a problem…” We had stuffed up. Big time.
It was just a couple of months ago at our pinnacle moment of the year. Our national youth event, The Gathering, is a wonderful weekend with over 1,300 young people coming together to worship. It is also an absolute monster to organise!
This event cannot happen without a large team of hard working volunteers who slog their guts out to serve the young people and youth leaders in attendance. Perhaps the greatest sacrifice for this team is that they commit to give up the comfort of their own beds, roll out a sleeping mat and spend a couple of nights “sleeping” on a church floor.
So back to that text message: “… The volunteers arrived at their church accommodation but there was no one there. We called the Pastor but they said nothing had been confirmed. He came down and let us in, but it’s not quite big enough for everyone. The guys and girls are in the same room…”
It went on with some makeshift solutions that had been found, but this was bad. We had dropped the ball, we had messed up, and the volunteers were (understandably) upset.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I was devastated that we had let our volunteers down and was determined to make it right. And there was only one way that was going to happen…
The next morning I arrived early to ensure I was there to welcome the volunteers and join them in their team meeting (which I wasn’t originally going to be at). Some looked tired, some looked angry, all of them certainly had the right to be. So I stood up and did the only thing I could do…
“Guys, I heard about what happened with your accommodation last night and I want you to know that I’m sorry. That was not our plan, it was not our intention, and we have not honoured you here. It is my fault, it is not OK, there are no excuses, and I am sorry. We are going to sort this out for tonight, but until then, we cannot do this event without you, so I’m asking that you would hear my apology, forgive us, and bring your best to God and to the young people today.”
And then something strange happened…
An applause. Yes you read that right, an actual round of applause. From everyone. The tension was lifted, the posture of the team changed, and that was that. We left it there, and the team smashed it that day.
And herein lies the paradox of an apology. We fear that publicly admitting and taking ownership for our mistakes will mean we lose the respect of our teams and young people. We worry that it will equate to broadcasting our incompetence such that onlookers lose their trust in us as a leader. But in fact the opposite is true.
When something goes wrong, people are looking for the leader who will take responsibility for it. That is the leader they will respect. That is the leader they will trust. That is the leader they will follow. The paradox of the apology is, as Bill Hybels says, when you admit your mistakes your stock goes up.
There’s one more element to the story that it’s worth taking a moment to think about. Practically I didn’t actually have anything to do with organising the accommodation. That wasn’t my job, but that didn't mean it wasn't my fault. I was the leader, so ultimately, the buck stopped with me.
If you are the leader then it is on you to take responsibility for the mistakes of your team. Yes those mistakes can and should be addressed with your team members in private, but never, ever pass the buck onto another member of your team publicly.
Whenever a leader shifts the blame in this way - someone else stuffed up, someone else made a mistake, someone else dropped the ball - their credibility is eroded. In contrast, admitting your mistakes says something profound about your quality as a leader. It says something about your character, about your integrity. It shows people that you are trustworthy, that they can follow you and know they are not going to get publicly burned!
Sometimes as leaders we can feel the pressure to be perfect and get everything right. The bad news is, we aren’t and we don’t!
The good news is, people are looking for an authentic leader, not a perfect one. So we are faced with a choice. Either we cover up and pass the blame for our mistakes, or we come right out and own it. And you will find that, when you do, your leadership credibility skyrockets. This is the paradox of an apology.
Question: What have you done when you have needed to apologise to your team? Leave a comment below.