With Martin G. Moore

Episode #188

It’s Hard to Say Sorry: So when should you?

People make mistakes all the time, and leaders are people! More often than not, when a leader makes an honest mistake, everyone just moves on and leaves it behind with no fanfare or post mortem.

But there are times when it’s appropriate for a leader to stand up and say, “Hey, I got this wrong, and I’m sorry”.

Do this too much, and you can appear weak, ineffective, and indecisive. Do it too little, and you can seem arrogant, disconnected, and out of touch! To complicate matters further, it’s not always your choice to make!

In this episode, I examine the pressures facing leaders when they’re deciding whether or not it’s appropriate to say “sorry”, and I outline half a dozen likely scenarios you may find yourself in that require you to make this kind of judgment call.

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Episode #188 It’s Hard to Say Sorry: So when should you?

People make mistakes all the time, and leaders are people. More often than not, when a leader makes an honest mistake, everyone just moves on and leaves it behind without much fanfare and without the need to conduct an extensive post mortem. But there are times when it’s appropriate for a leader to stand up and say, “Hey, I got this wrong and I’m sorry.” Do this too much, and you can appear weak, ineffective, and indecisive. Do it too little, and you can seem arrogant, disconnected, and out of touch to complicate matters further. It’s not always your choice to make. So, how would you know when the right time is to apologize for a decision you’ve made or a course of action that you’ve taken that doesn’t work out?

Today, we look at this question from a whole range of perspectives. It’s pretty difficult to give neat and definitive answers for something like this. So instead, I’m hoping that today’s episode simply opens up your mind to the complexities of the issue and enables you to improve your judgment about what may or may not be appropriate in any given circumstance. Today I will:

  • Explain a very important principle: as a leader, you own it all.

  • I’ll then explain why your decision to say sorry isn’t always as easy as it seems, and may not be as much in your control as you might think.

  • I’ll finish by taking you through a number of different scenarios, throwing in my two cents worth about how I would handle it and explain some of my reasoning.

So let’s get into it.


Let’s start with a few key principles about saying sorry, so that we’re all on the same page.

Saying sorry is not a sign of weakness 

This is absolutely critical. If you think it is a sign of weakness, then as a leader, your tendency will be to not use the word as often as you should. But having said that, the word sorry, does come with some caveats and complexities, which we’re going to delve into shortly. In general, you shouldn’t feel the need to apologize for having the courage to do the right thing when executing your accountabilities, just because it may be unpopular. There’ll be a balance to strike, no doubt, and a fine line to tread. But if you are conscious of the fact that saying sorry isn’t inherently weak and you do so at the appropriate times, your people will respect you enormously for that.

When you’re employed in any role that position becomes yours with all its history problems and issues

 This includes all the bad decisions, poor judgment, and inexcusable behavior of those who’ve gone before you. Some promises made by your predecessors may need to be honoured by you, even if those promises were really dumb, for example, approving funding for a project that you don’t think delivers value to the organisation. Others, like promises of promotion for an individual, may not. This can create some pretty tricky scenarios that you’ll be faced with – particularly in the early days of moving into a new role where people will try to play on the fact that you don’t know the full history. In general terms, anything that was committed to in writing should be honored. But in many cases, people will make a claim that they had a commitment from your predecessor without being able to show any firm evidence for that claim, regardless of whether or not the commitment was formal. You need to make a choice. If it’s in writing, your choice is reasonably clear. If it’s not in writing, but the undertaking can somehow be verified, you need to decide whether or not it’s binding.

If you choose to honor your predecessor’s commitment, then you may have some conditions. You may have to honor the original decision, but you get to set the rules going forward. So for example, in the case where your predecessor has promised to promote an individual to a new role, you may have to have conversations with that person to go something like this:

Alright, I’ll honor the commitment that my predecessor made to you, but going forward, I’ll be applying my standards for behavior and performance, not theirs. So you need to understand what that means.”

But if you choose not to honor a perceived commitment, then the word sorry may be entirely appropriate. You might have a conversation that goes something more like this:

I know you believe that my predecessor made this commitment to you, but I have to make decisions going forward. They’re in the best interest of the team and the organization. So I’m choosing not to promote you. I’m sorry.

 Now, in any situation where you aren’t in a position to honor a commitment made by a previous occupant of your role, the word sorry may be entirely appropriate. You could take a harder line without saying sorry, and say something like, “Well, that was Joe’s view, and all bets are off. There’s a new sheriff in town.” But this can have unintended consequences as people are gonna lose confidence in the weight of any promise that’s made, whether it’s your predecessors, your future successors – or even you.


Sometimes saying sorry and making that choice is not as simple as it might seem. Often, you can see the agony of a leader whose public stance is in direct conflict with their personal stance on an issue. How does this happen? Surely a leader at the top of an organization gets to decide what to do, right? It’s important to remember that everyone works for someone. Even the Chief Executive of a Fortune 100 company has key investors, a board of directors they may not control, and an active customer base that has expectations for how the brand will react in any given circumstance, so the decision on something as simple as “Should I say sorry?” can be super complex.

Now, I got to see firsthand how this works as CEO of a major business. When significant issues arose that had any hint of public awareness, I couldn’t automatically just choose to say in public what I thought was right. Anytime something big occurs, all of a sudden you are surrounded by a be of well-meaning advisors:

  • There’s the company’s General Counsel – the top lawyer – briefing me on the legal implications of anything I might say in public: “Oh, Marty, you can’t say this. Otherwise it may be construed as admitting liability, opening up the company to civil damages claims.”

  • Then there’s the PR team: “Well, Marty, we want to seem like we’re on the side of the communities we operate in. So we should respond like this.”

  • Of course, there’s Investor Relations: “Marty, you have to approach the issue like this because our major shareholder has a firm policy on the matter, and we can’t risk their ire.”

  • Then there’s the line Executives. All of whom have a view about how a problem should be dealt with to best suit them: marketing operations, sales, engineering – they all line up.

A strong leader makes her own decisions for better or for worse, and these must always be consistent with your internal barometer. Sometimes it’s extremely difficult, especially when there are potential implications that may not be in the best short term interests of the company. But great decisions are made by understanding all of the competing viewpoints and mapping a path forward. So the perfect decision for me is something like this, where the accountable decision maker can say:

Thank you very much for your expert advice. I’ve heard you, and it’s been incredibly valuable to me in my decision making process. Now this is my decision. We’re going here.

In effect, you are shouldering the personal accountability for making that choice. Make no mistake – you aren’t bound to follow any advisor – HR, Legal, Investor Relations, anyone  – you’ve just got to be prepared to wear the consequences, good or bad, of the decisions you make.

Now to make this easier to navigate, I developed a keen sense of the personal sorry versus the official sorry. There were times where I had to make a call in the best interest of the company because let’s face it, I had a legal obligation to do so under the Corporations Act. But I still felt that it was important to validate the implications for an affected party, so at the end of an official statement, I would sometimes say something like this: “On a personal note, I understand how this has affected the individuals involved, and I’m deeply sorry for the distress it has clearly caused.” This gave me a little bit of an out to make a distinction between the official line and my personal feelings. Of course, any lawyer worth their salt will tell you that this is a distinction that the courts won’t necessarily recognise if we ever had to defend it. My view was:

Well, okay. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I’ll back myself to argue the distinction between a personal and an official view if the need ever arises. Besides, the very act of saying sorry, of recognising someone’s pain, reduces the likelihood that we’ll ever be faced with the need to do so. It’s a healing process.”

And don’t get drawn into making lame excuses. Your language has to indicate ownership of every decision you make – “I had no choice” is a shit response. You always have a choice. Rather your posture should be, “It was a tough choice, but one that had to be made. And I own that.” Accountability is everything.

Alright, I’m going to cover a bunch of examples now, because I want to give you an idea about my thinking when approaching these types of issues, because all of them are subtly different.


Apologizing for historical injuries done to people

A classic was a debate that went on for years as to whether the Australian government should apologize to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people for colonizing Australia. Now this was a critical part of reconciliation and healing. There were underlying issues though, of land rights and economic share. And some of the issues at play are incredibly complex –  culturally, politically, and financially. Now, as you probably know, I like to stay as far away from politics as I can – otherwise I would become a very cynical Marty. So I don’t really have an opinion on this except to say that this is a case where as a nation saying sorry was the right thing to do regardless of whatever implications that brought. This is a time when a leader needs to push back on the legal advice and say, “Thanks for the advice. I understand the risks and now I’m going take this course of action.”

The nation was absolutely unable to move forward until that step was taken. So after years of debate and turmoil, in February 2008, then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd made a formal apology. Now, remember Rudd had nothing to do with the sins of previous governments whose policies had led to what can only be described as atrocities against the Indigenous peoples of Australia. But the apology came from the highest office in the land, in his official capacity as Prime Minister, and it was a watershed event.

Apologizing for decisions made for the greater good

At the risk of biting off more politics than I can chew, while I’m still on government, some decisions are actually made for the greater good. Take the responses to COVID, for example. Now there are invariably going to be some impacts when decisions like these are made – should a leader making these decisions apologize for doing so? Look, some impacts are pretty minor in the scheme of things, even though people can tend to get bent out of shape about them. Should the leader making lockdown decisions apologize for the shortage of toilet paper in supermarkets? Well, probably not. When I was contemplating the impacts of the lockdowns in Australia in 2020, the toilet paper shortage wasn’t in my top hundred. This was probably because I understand Porter’s five forces model and especially the force of availability of substitutes. As long as we have running water, we’re probably okay, that toilet paper shortage ain’t gonna kill us.

But in all seriousness, there were some incredibly significant impacts that came with these decisions. The lockdowns affected people’s livelihoods, their mental health, and their relationships. Your decisions as a leader can often have a negative impact on individuals where they have no control over it.

If I was one of those leaders who chose to impose or not impose lockdowns, should I apologize for it? Should I apologize for the deaths that would inevitably occur if I chose to not enforce any lockdown constraints? Should I apologize for the minor inconveniences? Should I apologize for the human toll of being locked away for months on end? Should I apologize for the unseen consequences yet to emerge as a result of piling up monumental mountains of debt to leave to our children?

You could put yourself in a position where you’d never stop saying sorry, but for me in this case, sorry, would be appropriate. Imagine ordering the lockdown of a city or the closure of a state border. Now, if I’d taken that course of action, I’d definitely be saying something like this:

This is the action we need to take. It’s in the best interest of our people and society at large. However, I understand the implications for many of you on your livelihoods, and for that, I’m really sorry. I understand that many of you will be struggling mentally and emotionally during this time, and for that, I am sorry. I know that many of you have parents who are sick or dying and you won’t be able to visit them, and for that, I’m really sorry. But here’s how we made our decisions, and here’s why we’ve made them.”

In these types of extreme circumstances, I think a little sorry goes a very long way.


Alright, most of us aren’t going to find ourselves in those types of roles or situations – let’s get back to a few more relatable examples that you are likely to come across day to day as leaders in business.

Conflict with management

This is a great story when we talk about owning all of your many predecessors’ problems. This is a classic case of “Well, look what management did to us.” Now let me explain – I was running a town hall meeting in one of CS Energy’s power stations in 2014. There were probably about 200 people in the room, mostly blue collar, and it was a heavily unionized site. Now let me tell you, these unionized sites are different – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. In fact, the degree of difficulty over a non-unionized business is an order of magnitude greater.

Anyhow, during question time, a guy with a ZZ Top beard stood up and launched an absolute tirade that even took me a little bit aback. He was complaining about something that management had done and from the way he described it, I thought he was quite justified in his anger. I’d only been running the company for about a year. So I asked when this poor behavior from leadership had taken place, his answer, it was during the commissioning of the Callide C Power Station. Guess when that was? 2001 – thirteen years prior. This was a classic case of no apology required. I said to him, “Look what you are saying may be true. That’s not the way we do things around here now. I can’t change the relationship that you’ve historically had with previous management teams, all I can do is work as hard as I possibly can to make it different going forward.”

Is sorry appropriate in this case? Well, no. Not for me. The claims made by some hardline union members were often grossly exaggerated and had become symbolically embellished with the passage of time. Molehills definitely become mountains here. And some of these stories are positioned specifically to make management look like evil bloodsucking monsters, and it’s simply not the case. So in situations like this, think of the context of the statements and assess the likelihood that you’re dealing with clear facts.

Redundancies and restructures

Another situation where you might be wondering whether or not you should apologize is if you’re ever forced to implement a redundancy program. Now at some stage in your leadership career, you may well be in the unenviable position of having to restructure and reduce the size of your workforce. This is a terrible experience for everyone involved, and often the decisions are outside of your control. I did an old podcast episode on this a long time ago, it’s Episode 64: Restructures and Redundancies. If you ever have to run one of these programs, that’s the episode to listen to. Remember for every person who is devastated to be losing their job, there’s another who is ecstatic to get a cash payout and move on to something else. You never know who’s going to react in which way, but if someone is clearly genuinely upset by the outcome – whichever one it is – I would probably go so far as to say sorry. Something like this: “I know this isn’t what you would’ve liked. And I’m sorry for that. But this was a necessary decision for the business. I know you’ll bounce back and you’ll be better off for it going forward.”

Terminating employment due to poor performance or behavior

In contrast to this, sometimes you’re going to need to terminate someone’s employment due to their poor performance or unacceptable back behavior. Saying sorry can have the effect of taking on accountability for things that weren’t inside your control. This is why it’s really important to be comfortable in the fact that you’ve challenged, coached, and confronted your people really well, and that you’ve given them every opportunity to make the right choices about how they perform and behave while they’re in the employ of your company. A conversation to terminate someone’s employment shouldn’t be something you need to apologize for. I would often say something like this:

I made it abundantly clear what was required from you. I supported you in every way I reasonably could, and you know, we’ve had these conversations over and over again. You know, better than me, what the reasons are. But regardless of that, you haven’t met the performance of the role despite all of my support. So, unfortunately I have to terminate your employment.

If you ever need to take this on – and as a leader, I’m sure you will –  then Episode 34: When It’s Time For Someone To Go gives you the perfect roadmap for handling this.

Saying no to a business proposal

Now this could be really tough as a leader, you need to say no all the time – to proposals, to unsuccessful tenderers, to counterparts in negotiations – and saying sorry can be tricky because often in these circumstances you are not sorry at all. So a good principle is that if you are not sorry, don’t say you are. Instead, find a phrase that more appropriately describes your position. I used to use this phrase all the time: “I know this is not the answer you were hoping for, but…

This can be super powerful. You recognise the other party’s perspective, at the same time as stating the fact that your perspectives don’t align. It’s much better than offhandedly saying sorry.

Reversing a previously-made commitment

Occasionally in business, you’re going to have to reverse a previously-made commitment and this can be really hard most often because it’s something outside of your control. In these cases saying sorry I find is totally appropriate. I remember one situation where as CEO of the business, I made a verbal commitment to a key supplier who held a contract with us which was worth hundreds of millions of dollars over its life. I told my counterpart that I would be able to deliver a certain outcome, only to be later rolled by my board of directors. I fought hard, but occasionally you’re going to lose one or two. I remember going back to my counterpart with cap in hand and saying:

Mate, I’m really sorry, but I’m not going to be able to deliver on the commitment I made to you. I’m personally embarrassed, but I misread my board and they view the risk profile differently than what I do. I have to apologize to you personally, and on behalf of our company.

Let’s hope you don’t have to do that one too often, they’re really tough ones.

You can start to see some of the complexities involved in the simple decision to say sorry, or not to say sorry. Of course every situation is different, but I hope these sample scenarios will help you to think through any situation where you need to decide whether or not to apologize either in an official or an unofficial capacity. Whatever you do, it needs to pass the sniff test – that is, it’s got to be consistent with who you are and your unique leadership style. It has to recognise the complexities of the specific circumstances and more than anything, it has to be the right thing to do.


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