When should a leader apologize?

To apologize or not to apologize, that is the question. It’s not quite the question Hamlet asks himself, but it is a question facing leaders on a regular basis. When is an apology necessary? When might it actually do more harm than good? And why does it seem like leaders are apologizing nonstop nowadays?

These are some of the questions that Barbara Kellerman, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and I tried to tackle in a recent interview on the BAM! Radio Network. Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard, and she wrote an interesting article entitled “When Should a Leader Apologize — and When Not?” that appeared in the April 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review. In the article, Kellerman says that “leaders are prone to overestimate the costs of apologies and underestimate the benefits.” Interviewing the two of us was Holly Elissa Bruno, a host on the BAM! Radio Network.

Pope Benedict XVI (photograph by Torvindus)

I argued that shifting cultural expectations have led us to expect public apologies more often than in the past, even from people we long thought infallible — like the Pope. The Teflon exterior that some leaders assume in the face of disasters or embarrassments can be counterproductive and even backfire, as it did with Larry Summers during his tenure as Harvard’s president. A timely and sincere apology, I suggested, can cover a multitude of sins.

Kellerman pointed out that apologies have become so prevalent largely because technological changes allow us to witness the debasement of people, as well as to reveal our inner selves — “our secrets and scandals” — in new ways to mass audiences. She called this the “Oprah-ization” of our culture.

Kellerman also suggested a framework for apologies — five questions leaders should ask themselves before rushing to apologize: 1) what function would a public apology serve?; 2) who would benefit from an apology?; 3) why would an apology matter?; 4) what happens if one apologizes publicly?; and 5) what happens if one doesn’t apologize?

These are great questions that I’d bet most leaders never think to ask themselves.

One leader who never apologized was Claudius, the fictional king of Shakespeare’s Hamlet who wins the throne by killing his brother, Hamlet Senior. The closest he comes to an apology is his attempt at prayer in Act III, Scence 3, but it’s directed at God, not the title character:

O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect.

Moments later, Claudius realizes that apologizing to a divine being is pointless because he’s unwilling to give up what he’s gained by murdering Hamlet Senior. He briefly wonders, “May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?” The answer, of course, is no. Apologies are guaranteed to fail when they aren’t sincere and when wrongs aren’t righted.

Justin Snider