The Irony of the Apology

Anticipating by a few years the now ubiquitous apology culture, in 2006 Harvard Business Review published an article I wrote titled, “When Should a Leader Apologize – and When Not.” I noted then that for leaders to apologize is “a high stakes move” – for them, for their followers, and for the organizations they represent. “Refusal to apologize can be smart, or it can be suicidal. Conversely, readiness to apologize can be seen as a sign of strong character or as a sign of weakness. A successful apology can turn enmity into personal and organizational triumph – while an apology that is too little, too late, or too transparently tactical can bring on individual and institutional ruin.”

Since then for a leader to apologize has become a commonplace. So commonplace that on February 3 New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote “it seems that just about every day a chief executive, politician or other prominent figure is apologizing for something.” Sorkin, who along with Dov Seidman decided to institute an “apology watch,” went on to note, “The age of the apology is clearly upon us…. It has become de rigueur, an almost reflexive response among leaders to a mistake or, worse, a true crisis.”

As if to prove the point, in the last few weeks alone there have been apologies from a wide range of public figures, including Target’s chief executive Gregg W. Steinhafel, JP Morgan’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, General Motors chief executive Mary Barra, not to speak of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, venture capitalist Tom Perkins and, of all people, basketball superstar LeBron James (for using the word “retarded,” which he called a “bad habit”).

Nor is the apology culture confined to the U. S. To the contrary, it’s not far from being a global phenomenon. Just this week the Dutch financial giant ING felt obliged to apologize when it announced – in response to a public outcry – that it was retreating from a plan to serve ads to its customers based on their banking habits. In an open letter to all ING customers CEO Nich Jue wrote: “We have not been clear enough about the sensitive topic of customer data, causing an avalanche of worried response from our customers. These responses clearly demonstrate that there are a lot of questions and concerns about the protection of customer data, for which I sincerely apologize.”*

What then is the irony to which I refer? It is that those leaders who are apologizing are, at the least, responsive to the preferences of others. They are responsive to their stakeholders, to those who in some way are their followers or constituents. But there are other leaders – those ironically, paradoxically, who have the most to apologize for – who remain silent. Who never apologize, who never will apologize, who would rather die than be caught apologizing.

Any names come to mind?


*I am grateful to David Vermijs for pointing out to me the example of ING.



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