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The Most Powerful Phrase in Leadership
March 2013

I looked to my left, and saw that the guy in the pick-up truck was yelling, his face purple.

I'd just made a quick right turn off a busy, congested, construction-riddled street, and the guy in the pickup behind me had really honked. I pulled over on the quiet side street, so the guy could pass me, while I double checked my directions.

And here he was yelling at me through his open window. I rolled my window down, and could hear him shouting, "What's wrong with you! Don't you know what a turn signal is? Are you so stupid?"

I looked him in the eye, and said sincerely, "My apologies. I am so sorry…" Before I could continue my apology, he sheepishly looked down at his steering wheel, and said, almost softly, "I shouldn't lose my temper like this. I'm sorry I yelled at you." He slowly drove off.

I'm convinced that one of the most powerful phrases a leader can say is, "I'm sorry." And yet many leaders avoid this phrase as if it were politically incorrect. Admitting mistakes, and apologizing for them, is just foreign to a lot of leaders, because they fear it will show weakness.

Actually, the opposite is true. It's a sign of strength when someone in a leadership position says, "I'm sorry." It reveals that the leader has enough self-confidence, and belief in who he or she is as a person, that little harm can come from apologizing for a mistake.

Imagine what would have happened with the guy in the pickup truck if I had given in to the urge to yell back. Why, we'd probably still be yelling. Or worse. It certainly would have upset me, and probably ruined my day.

The correct response was to apologize. After all, I had turned quickly, and hadn't used my turn signal. We all make mistakes, and it's no sign of weakness to admit them.

I've read that when someone is yelling at you, it's almost impossible for that person to continue yelling with same intensity in response to a sincere apology. It's true. I know, because I've tried it many times.

Next time someone's yelling at you, try it. Just say, as calmly as you can, "I am so sorry. I was wrong, and I apologize." You'll immediately notice that even if the other person continues to yell, the intensity and decibel level will be at least a notch lower.

Once this happens, you'll be much more likely to calm the other person down. Only then can you have a rational conversation to resolve your differences.

One rule to follow is that you should never apologize when you're not sorry. It's dishonest, and an insincere apology will only make matters worse.

Keep in mind, though, that this rule doesn't prevent you from being sorry for the way the other person feels. This can often be the key to defusing a situation where someone's mad because of something you did, something you're not sorry for.

Let's say you selected Person A over Person B for a promotion. Person B comes storming into your office ranting and raving at how awful you are for selecting Person A. You're certain you made the right selection, so you can't apologize for that.

But you can say, "I'm sorry my selection has upset you." You're not taking the blame; you're merely acknowledging that your action has upset Person B. Make this apology sincere, with genuine concern for the other person's feelings, and you'll be defusing the situation.

Lots of times in this situation, people try to use logic first. They immediately launch into how Person A was better qualified, had a better record. If you try to do this without first defusing the anger, Person B isn't going to hear or listen. The anger is just too intense.

You should only present logic after you've reduced the anger. That's why you start off with acknowledging the person's anger.

If "I'm sorry" isn't the most powerful phrase in leadership, it's certainly one of the most powerful.

How comfortable are you in making a sincere apology? How do you initially react when someone's yelling at you? A sincere apology really does reduce the intensity of the other person's anger. Try it, and you'll see.