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Training Magazine

januari 09, 2024

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Leadership Presence: When (and When Not) to Say You Are Sorry

Building trust and confidence is a hallmark of leadership presence. Yet, I’ve observed countless rising women undermine the trust and confidence others have in them—in ways their male counterparts simply don’t—by how and when they elect to speak or remain silent.

Aspiring women leaders can elevate their command presence by effectively leveraging their natural trust-building powers of camaraderie, empathy, and humility. Below are some examples from “women on top” I’ve interviewed.

Stop Being Sorry for Asking Questions and Sharing Your Opinion

Women minimize themselves by saying things like, “Sorry, but I have a question,” or “I could be wrong, but….” Or they’ll preface an idea with the statement, “This might be a dumb idea, but…”

When stating an opinion or belief, some pose it as a question through rising voice intonation at the end of the sentence (a statement should naturally fall in pitch at the end of the sentence). Or they’ll choose to say nothing rather than offer an opinion that hasn’t been thoroughly researched and well-thought-out.

In all my Fortune 500 years leading male-dominated organizations, I cannot recall any man making a self-demeaning comment or apology before stating an opinion or posing an idea in front of his peers or superiors.

Women should keep in mind that they got to where they are because they are smart, qualified, and capable. Your prior managers hired you for these traits, so proudly showcase your thoughts, ideas, and perspectives—don’t downplay them. Other leaders expect you to have a unique perspective and the courage to share it.

When you have a question, ask it. There’s no reason to apologize. Chances are that other people have the same question, so go ahead and forthrightly ask it without the self-demeaning preamble. Others might even be grateful and impressed that you’re astute enough to ask for clarification. If the response doesn’t make sense to you, don’t assume the breakdown in communication is your fault. Simply ask the speaker if they have considered an alternative approach, or say something like, “Help me understand x, y, z.”

It’s not unusual to find women who’ve reached the executive ranks and finally have a seat at the decision-making table who are still reluctant to speak up in meetings. Linda Rutherford, Executive Vice President and Chief Communications Officer of Southwest Airlines recalls that after being promoted to VP, she struggled to speak up in the boardroom. “Sometimes, I would whisper to the person next to me. But then, the room did not benefit from that thought or that perspective. I’ve learned my value is to share that thought or perspective with everyone in the room.”

Several of the executives in the women’s leadership development program I founded admitted to having this challenge. Even though others at the executive table were willing to listen—and indeed wanted to hear from them—these women felt an obligation to know precisely what they were talking about before offering an opinion or even participating in the discussion.

So, we discussed ways to handle brainstorming in real-time—such as saying something like, “I reserve the right to come back to you after I’ve dived into this more (or strategized with my team), but off the top of my head, I think x, y, z.”

Don’t Remain Silent When an Apology is Due

Acknowledging that some ideas may be better than others when you do make a mistake, ask yourself how you might take corrective action or what you can do differently going forward. Accept that mistakes are opportunities to learn and improve. It’s a healthy sign of maturity to rationally assess how your action(s) or inaction caused an unexpected negative outcome.

If someone takes offense at something you’ve said or done, do your best to remain calm, especially if that person confronts you in anger. Rather than getting into a debate or responding in kind, this is a great time to say, “I’m sorry simply,” and politely ask, “What would you recommend I do (or say) differently?” Then, listen with the intent to understand their perspective, acknowledge their response, and thank them for their feedback.

If your action or inaction caused someone harm, put yourself in their shoes and be honest about the consequences of what you did or didn’t do. Don’t let things fester. Own up to it.

If your action or inaction harmed anyone publicly, a written apology will leave a lasting impression that you mean what you say. In your communication, you may also want to share any lessons you have learned and explain what you plan to do differently going forward.

One of the most memorable and admirable “power apologies” I’ve ever heard was made by Lt. General Kathleen Gainey (U.S. Army, Retired) when a business partner accused, “Your people are all messed up!”

Rather than investigate, General Gainey took their word for it and immediately admonished a subordinate two levels down. “That’s not how we behave….Here’s what I want to have done!”

Later, she heard the other side of the story from the subordinate’s manager. The business partner had not done their job, and the general had not taken the time to get the whole story. The general knew she had to take immediate action to regain the trust of her organization.

“I sat down and wrote an apology to my subordinate. I walked down to see that individual and apologized to him—in front of his peers. Then I also left him my apology note, saying, [I want] everybody else to know it was totally inappropriate for me to jump down two levels and not take the time to understand the situation fully.”

Saying you’re sorry when you’ve wronged someone can be challenging and humbling, but it’s the right thing to do. It repairs trust and confidence in your leadership acumen and sets your organization back on the path to success.

Leadership presence is knowing when (and when not) to say you’re sorry.

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