Sorry is sometimes the hardest word

Sorry is sometimes the hardest word

Recent events which have led to politicians apologising for their words or, in some cases the lack of words, has led me to ask whether saying sorry as a leader is a sign of strength or weakness.

As a new school year begins and school leaders reassess their strategies and plans it may be apposite to consider the strength of apologising.

I think as a school leader there are times when you should apologise for something you did or said, because it’s a sign of humility and that is a vital aspect of strong leadership. It builds a bridge back to the people you wronged or hurt, it shows that you are able to re-consider and it creates a more positive work environment.

In leadership, there are times when you create division either because you are excluding part of the team or because you didn’t communicate clearly about a project. Division happens, but it’s easy to forget the kind of damage it causes. From what I’ve observed and witnessed, great leaders know how to recognise division and when they’ve created the problem. Disunity usually starts with minor issues that go unchecked.

From time to time all of us react angrily to a situation or to people. For some leaders, it’s a way to get what you want without having to explain things, build trust, communicate about plans, or discuss options in a calm matter. Good leaders are those who hate to lose; great leaders admit when they make a mistake and have acted rashly in anger.

Apologising freely requires a good deal of courage.  It’s not comfortable for any of us to admit an error, or to acknowledge that something we’ve done has caused others harm or inconvenience. So when someone truly apologises, we know he or she is putting honesty and honour above personal comfort or self-protection.  It’s inspiring, and it feels brave.

In an article called Creative Leadership: Humility and Being Wrong.  The authors, Doug Guthrie and Sudhir Venkatesh, make a really clear and well-reasoned case for the positive power of admitting and apologising for one’s mistakes.  At one point in the article, they note that:

We are frequently taught that leaders, especially aspiring leaders, should hide weaknesses and mistakes. This view is flawed. It is not only good to admit you are wrong when you are; but also it can also be a powerful tool for leaders—actually increasing legitimacy and, when practiced regularly, can help to build a culture that actually increases solidarity, innovation, openness to change and many other positive features of organisational life.

Yes, of course there is and must be a hard edge to leadership that challenges poor performance and holds people to account for their responsibilities. This requires a thoughtful balance between the creation of a culture of aspiration, celebration and success and the ability to be tough when the situation requires it. Leaders also need the ability to remain calm in a crisis and act decisively. However, saying sorry when things do not go according to plan is not a sign of weakness or admission that things cannot be put right. That is when honesty and emotional resilience are vital to demonstrate confidence and courage when faced with challenging issues.


Nelson Mandela, a great example of humility in leadership, said in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

Developing resilience in leadership is essential. Successful leaders need to be optimistic, energetic, and positive and to remain calm in a crisis. The adverse situation might be due to a failed Ofsted inspection or there might be something going on in the wider community that is impacting the school or, perhaps, just a breakdown of relationships within the school.

The important thing to do in order to develop resilience is to look ahead and not get demoralised when something goes wrong. Spiritual and emotional resilience, positivity and a steely determination are assets but it’s also personal. Remember your own health as well – think about your work-life balance and stay positive. Try and keep a sense of perspective, believe in yourself and ensure you don’t run the risk of burn out.


Honesty starts with being honest with yourself.


A good leader is a person who takes a little more than his share of the blame and a little less than his share of the credit. —John Maxwell



Mike Hodgkiss

Mike Hodgkiss has 36 years teaching experience in the secondary sector, twenty years as a deputy head in an 11-18 comprehensive school in Essex. He was a governor of a primary school for several years. He has led and coordinated training for staff in many aspects of teaching, learning and leadership not just in this country but in Europe too. He has written for EuroSchoolNet on international and citizenship projects and for ASCL's leadership magazine. He is currently editor of @Teachtalks.

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