Great Leaders Apologize When They’re Wrong

Jake Wilder
5 min readOct 12, 2022

It’s a Sign of Strength

Photo: iStock

“If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically,” said Dale Carnegie, offering some of the best advice that almost everyone ignores. Apologies are a rare occurrence in today’s organizations. People tend to associate saying they’re sorry with admitting weakness. They think it will sacrifice their credibility and cause people to think less of them.

Yet being willing to apologize is actually a sign of strength. It shows people that you have the confidence to recognize when you’re wrong. It reinforces the idea that being right is more important to you than having been right.

Not apologizing doesn’t negate the mistake. You still messed up. Ignoring it just tells people that you don’t think it’s a big deal. The problem, of course, is that they often see it as one. By not apologizing, you take one error and make it worse by dismissing its importance.

Because in most situations, everyone knows you made the mistake. They’re just waiting to see how you’re going to handle it. Owning it and apologizing is a good way to rebuild trust and affirm your credibility. Ignoring it tends to have the opposite effect.

I once had a boss who, in multiple years working with him, never apologized once. It sent a clear message to our team that mistakes wouldn’t be tolerated. Instead of pushing new innovative ideas, people took on low-risk, derivative work. When changing circumstances should have required a change in strategy, people held to their original plan like ruts in the mud. The boss’s unwillingness to apologize stifled everyone’s innovation and agility. It didn’t end until things got so bad that he lost his job. Even then, he refused to acknowledge his role in it.

None of us are impressed with people who only talk about their successes and refuse to acknowledge any mistakes. We tend to see these people as over-compensating for their own insecurities, not as role models to emulate. We’d much rather follow leaders with the confidence to recognize when they’re wrong and take action to correct it.

People want to follow leaders that they see as human. They want to work with managers who view failure as a necessary step in the journey, not something to be shunned at all costs. All of this comes…

Jake Wilder

I don’t know where I’m going. But at least I know how to get there.