When was the last time you saw a CEO apologize? It is a powerful communications tool, but for various reasons it is one that is increasingly neglected. By owning up to a misstep, an individual or organization effectively frames the issue, putting parameters around it and defining it. It enables you to begin the process of repairing the damage that''s been caused and winning back credibility.

Sounds great, right? Then why do we resist making an apology? Why do public relations counselors gloss over the benefits of a good, strong apology? Our failure to effectively say "I''m sorry" may be related to:

  • Our sense of how leaders exercise power. You don''t want to seem weak.
  • Our view of the leader''s responsibilities. It''s a "let the chips fall where they may" attitude.
  • Our inability to empathize. Let''s face it, the focus in the boardroom is usually on dollars and cents, not feelings.
  • Our lack of confidence in our communication skills, especially when emotion is involved. We like to keep our CEO away from potentially volatile situations.
  • Our interest in not making matters worse. We’d rather “just let things die down a bit,” rather than risk adding fuel to the fire.

Some leaders withhold apologies because they fear it diminishes their authority, or reduces their power. By focusing on their status, they''re diminishing their credibility.

Below are the five elements of an effective apology.

  • Take responsibility as soon as possible. Apologize as soon after the offense as possible.
  • Describe what you did. Don''t be vague or use euphemisms that attempt to tidy up your mess. A short, direct statement is perfect followed by a brief explanation of the circumstances surrounding it to provide context.
  • Express remorse. Make your apology as heartfelt as you can without assuming liability. Tone is important here. The statement must reflect genuine remorse. Don''t let the attorneys assert too much control of how the message is delivered. They''ll want to water it down, which will diminish the positive impact of the statement.
  • Shut up. Afterward, be quiet and listen while people tell you how angry they are. If it''s really bad, they''ll call for your head. Know that you''ve done the right thing and time is on your side.
  • Make it right. In such situations, what you DO always trumps what you SAY. Therefore, symbolic gestures matter. Your attempts to correct the problem and compensate those who have been wronged are essential. However, be careful not to promise more than you can deliver.

Though everything in our gut might resist the idea of apologizing, the fact is that people are more critical of authorities who don''t talk about the things that have gone wrong than they are of leaders who acknowledge those things. Ken Lay is the classic example of the way credibility can quickly be flushed down the toilet when a leader refuses to acknowledge mistakes and make a strong, direct apology.