Last Monday, I wrote about forgiveness in response to the bombings in Cairo, but the United Airlines passenger fiasco brought the other side of forgiveness into sharp focus the side where we have to ask for forgiveness. In this case, the company’s CEO issued a half-hearted, watered-down apology sparking even more outrage and calling for a second apology. In just a matter of days, the airline's shares dropped, shaving over half a million dollars from its market value.


We are all human beings, imperfect and prone to sin. It is not a matter of if, but when we will offend or hurt someone and need to ask for forgiveness. As leaders, we may have to apologize on behalf of a subordinate, a department, or the entire organization we lead. When this happens, the words we say and the attitude we display may well be the difference between a minor incident and a major crisis.


So, what does a good apology look like? Consider these five "do's and dont's" of apologizing.

  1. Be Sincere – The worst apology is one made out of obligation. Before going public with any apology, resolve the issue privately and own up to your part in the conflict.

  2. Take Full Responsibility – Don’t share the blame with the other party, even if they were in the wrong. Their mistakes are their responsibility. Own up to yours. This is the only way apologies are effective.

  3. Don’t Sugarcoat It – The worst thing you can do is downplay the gravity of your mistake. If anything, overemphasize your fault. It can greatly help reconciliation.

  4. Never Use Humor – It is often good to use a little humor in tough situations, to ease tensions and relieve stress, but this is not the case with apologies. Humor will only make you sound insincere.

  5. Don’t Expect Forgiveness – A truly sincere apology doesn’t expect forgiveness, just mercy. A successful apology defuses the incident and avoids escalation of the conflict.

A sincere and heartfelt apology could have resulted in a completely different outcome for the CEO of United Airlines. Instead, the cost of the airline's poor response to the incident has hugely affected their credibility.

In leadership, mistakes and conflicts are inevitable. An immediate and sincere response that takes complete ownership of the error and sincerely asks for forgiveness is the best way to a positive outcome.



Have you ever had to apologize in public for your own mistake or someone under your leadership? How did it go?

by Norival Trindade