Just as increased responsibility accompanies increased power, so the power of apology increases when genuinely offered by a leader. By way of reassurance, it seems that in actual practice, making an apology reduces the likelihood of legal action. Effective leaders make genuine apologies. Effective apologizers model what could be called “high-road leadership.”
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Here’s an inspiring story from Canada as described by Jocelyn Orr.
“Sitting in the Hakomi training circle during the ‘right use of power’ segment taught by Cedar Barstow, we were instructed on the five aspects of a good apology (recognition, responsibility, remorse, restitution, repetition). I realized that the hearing I had attended as moral support to one of my clients had quite closely followed these guidelines.
“My client and I sat together in a small room with two other women; one a lawyer representing Canada (who referred to herself as ‘Canada’ throughout the hearing), and another who was the time and record keeper. The agenda was clearly outlined to my client and the process began by Canada’s opening remarks. Canada spoke in the first person and she gently and kindly articulated recognition of the terrible wrongs that she, Canada, had inflicted upon my client. She spoke in general terms but acknowledged that the meeting we were about to participate in was to recognize the specific injuries inflicted upon this woman. Canada took full responsibility for what my client had suffered, and she expressed remorse. We then went forward with the hearing, which required my client to speak of her personal abuse and suffering. Often Canada would stop the process to ask clarifying questions or to gently give the survivor whatever time she needed to gather herself and continue. Canada had specific questions, but my client was generally free to tell her story in her own way and time.
“Canada concluded the meeting with closing remarks which again expressed recognition, responsibility and remorse for the terrible experiences and loss of childhood my client suffered. She spoke of the inadequacy of this form of restitution, but stated that this was the best she, as a nation, could do at this point in our history. ‘No sum of money will ever fully compensate you for your suffering, and for that I am so very sorry,’ she repeated. I was brought to tears by the experience. As my client and I left the building, she expressed her feelings to me: ‘You know, the money is really of no consequence. Having this experience is what I really needed. I feel my country has apologized to me, and I feel a greater degree of healing as a result.’ “
For leaders—and we are all leaders in some aspects of our lives—who are dedicated to right uses of power, the practice of apology has proactive value. John Kador (pp. 223-224 and 239) describes three evolutionary shifts that accompany the practice of apology.
First, “practicing apology challenges ingrained attitudes about power and accountability.” As a leader you must come to see that power requires your accountability. Granting you executive immunity is simply a way of helping you avoid your responsibility.
“Dealing with emotions of apology” comes next. As a leader you must learn to recognize when you have caused harm, be willing to bear knowing the harm you have caused without getting lost in shame, and be capable of the ego vulnerability of offering an apology even when you don’t know how your apology will be received. Finally, you must be able to self-correct. This is true, nondefensive self-awareness.
The third requirement is cultivating “a disposition favorable to personal transparency.” Learning the emotional and practical aspects of apology serves more than the particular relationship it is attempting to repair. Apology also significantly shifts our understanding of power toward a new paradigm in which we use it with wisdom and skill to heal and repair harm, evolve situations and relationships, and promote the common good.
Apologies may be as simple as expressing remorse for stepping on someone’s foot or as deep and complex as apologizing for nationalabuses of power to minorities or other down-power groups: American Indians, blacks, military women who have been raped, aboriginal peoples, children who have been abused by the clergy, or victims of genocide. Apologies can be as interpersonal as between mother and daughter or as multipersonal as a representative of an organization apologizing for the offenses of many in the organization.
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