Leaders Say Sorry; Losers Stay Silent

by Alli Polin on August 23, 2013

leaders say sorry; losers stay silent

When you do something wrong, is the first thing you do say “I’m sorry” or is it to look around and see if anyone noticed?

I walked my son to his classroom this morning and he still had a few minutes to play before the morning bell.  Some sixth graders were kicking a footy ball nearby and I hardly registered their presence.  I was busy looking at one little boy’s loose tooth when the footy ball suddenly whacked me on the head.  I looked up for an apology but all I found were two boys looking for their ball.  Surely they had to notice that they hit me – hard.

I said “When you hurt someone, even if it’s not on purpose, it’s great to say I’m sorry.” The boys looked at each other, confused.

“Do you think whoever hit the ball can say sorry to me?”  This led to some feverish pointing to each other and mumbling back and forth from the boys.

I stood there, watching them and saw the guilt and shame on their faces but also the absolute uncertainty about what they should do next.

Eventually, I asked if anyone knew their names so I could go into the office and inform them that these boys were playing too close to the littlest kids and were unapologetic about injuring others.

Finally, one boy, as he walked past me, without looking at me for more than 1.2 seconds, said “sorry” and went to find his ball.

OK, clearly I know that they didn’t do it on purpose.  I also realize that I’m a bazillion years older than them and having an adult ask you for an apology can be intimidating. However, I also know that when you do something wrong, even by accident, you have a choice:

  1. Apologize
  2. Justify your actions
  3. Pretend it never happened

Leaders, regardless of their age or position say sorry; losers remain silent.  (Click to Tweet)

Why is it a loser-thing to remain silent?

  1. Silence after wrong-doing is arrogance; “I’m sorry” is connection.  Only losers intentionally chose the arrogant path.
  2. It’s a false sense of entitlement that you get to do what you want regardless of the consequences.
  3. You show how small you are, not big and tough, when you cause pain and walk away.
  4. We are all human – to pretend that you don’t need to say sorry overlooks our humanity.
  5. We are all in relationship with each other whether we want that to be the case or not.  Choosing silence breaks the bonds of relationship and leads to self-imposed isolation.
  6. You buy-into your self-justifications and instead of seeing “what is” you create a me-centric view of the world instead of we-centric.

Do I think that the older boys will stop kicking the footy ball near the little kids, many of whom have not even lost their first tooth?  Probably not.  Will the boys apologize the next time they kick the ball into someone’s head?  It’s a toss-up.  My hope is, that instead of holding onto their shame, they’ll step into their personal leadership with a quick and honest “sorry!”  We can’t erase the past but we can acknowledge our actions and make new choices in the future.

Make the Leap Action: Leave guilt, shame and self-justification at the door.  Say “I’m sorry” and move forward instead of ignoring the impact of your actions and having your mis-steps grow in magnitude and impact.

Does sorry come easily to you or can it be a tough pill to swallow?

Are you ready to make the leap?  For speaking, coaching or consulting, Let’s Connect!

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Mertz August 23, 2013 at 7:40 am

Agree! It relates to showing empathy. Empathy is shown by saying “I’m sorry” when something goes wrong – intentional or not. It shows that a human connection is being made and is still very valuable. We need to lead the way, just as you did, Alli. Thanks!


Alli Polin August 23, 2013 at 10:13 am

Absolutely, Jon! Empathy. It’s about acknowledging that our actions hurt another human being and far less about right and wrong.

Great points that are much appreciated!


Stephen Lahey August 23, 2013 at 9:18 am

This post got me thinking. Sociopaths are relatively common in the executive suites of corporate America. (As a recruiter, I’ve met more than my share.) They seem to relish their wealth, and the influence that they have over the working lives of so many. They certainly don’t consider themselves losers. Of course, we don’t want their brand of success. Your post brings to mind the popular Ogden Nash quote: “There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have a clear conscience, or none at all.”


Alli Polin August 23, 2013 at 10:18 am

Steve –

There are tons of leaders out there that love the power… and that often means never, ever apologizing since we should be glad that they’re willing to talk to us in the first place. Not one of them would say they are a loser yet if we identify losers by their caring, love and respect for others or lack thereof, I think most would agree which side they’re on.

That quote from Ogden Nash is new to me and I love it. Thanks for sharing it here along with your insights. Definitely adds depth to this post and this subject.


Lalita Raman August 23, 2013 at 9:43 am

Saying sorry for many is almost like committing a sin. They’ll try to justify but apologies is not part of their core values. And then there are those who say sorry yet don’t mean it and the next second will commit the same “mistake”. Many organization so called leaders do the same.

Sorry is such a nice word and by saying it you indicate your humility.

I love the point you have made that we cannot erase the past but surely can carve a new beginning.

Good one Alli.


Alli Polin August 23, 2013 at 10:09 am

Lalita – all of those “sorry” people that are not so sorry, I know them well. I almost think it’s worse than the silence – an apology that is just totally false. It’s only words with no feeling, no caring and on the receiving end it just feels empty.

Humility and humanity… not one of us should ever be above saying sorry when it’s the right thing to do.

As for learning from our past mistakes? I wonder if that apology was insincere or those are people that are struggling to get in touch with how their behaviors and choices are about more than them – and certainly reflect who they are.

Thank you for adding to this conversation, Lalita!!


Joy Guthrie August 23, 2013 at 10:09 am

Thank you, Alli. Love your post! “Sorry” is such a powerful word. When given honestly and sincerely, it erases (or at least reduces) transgressions from the significant to the small. “A bazillion years older”??? Funny. Yes, it could have been intimidating. “I’m sorry” would have gone really far. Behind some of the young folk who didn’t want to say I’m sorry could be a parent that will take issue with you for taking issue with their child. I’ve seen it happen. Great points on the importance of “sorry.” Thanks for sharing.


Alli Polin August 23, 2013 at 10:11 am


I’m SURE that there is a parent that would be very unhappy with me for suggesting that an apology would be appreciated. The week prior, I stopped some kids from bullying another child and was met with stares from students and parents alike. I wondered why nobody else said anything at all.

Thanks for your insights on this too! Sincerity and honesty matter a TON when it comes to an apology that hits home or falls flat.


Dan Forbes August 23, 2013 at 11:05 am

Alli, You post reminded me of the line from the movie Love Story, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Really, I think that’s baloney. If you love, you’ll be the first to say you’re sorry.

Learning that relationships require give and take, saying you’re sorry, and being forgiving is a sign of maturity. Surely these kids are not yet mature, but it also seems they may not be getting the parental guidance they need.

One of the first lessons I learned from my parents was to say “I’m sorry,” when I did something wrong.


Alli Polin August 25, 2013 at 6:11 am

Dan – I agree with you; total baloney! There are times when sorry is just the right thing to say regardless of how we choose to view ourselves in the mix. For most of us, our parents teach us: Hurt someone? Apologize.

Thanks for sharing, Dan!


Kaarina Dillabough August 23, 2013 at 11:14 am

I’m Canadian. We say ‘sorry’ all the time, haha! In all seriousness – apologize when you’ve done something wrong or hurtful, say please and thank you, hold the door open for others…ooh, off topic, but you get my drift:) Cheers! Kaarina


Alli Polin August 25, 2013 at 6:12 am

I love what you’re saying, Kaarina. We had a nanny that lived with our family for a few years and that’s exactly what she helped my husband and I reinforce with our children. The other thing she taught was if someone is walking by, make eye contact and say hello. All part of being in relationship with others and not living in silos.

Totally get ya!


LaRae Quy August 23, 2013 at 11:48 am

Our personalities are developed in the playground as children…the way we deal with defeat, shame, and problems will play out the same in adult life. When I didn’t get to play with ball in the playground as a kid, I swore to myself that I would get to be so good at the game that they would regret not giving me the ball…I still have those habits as an adult – I’m an overachiever.

Your point about not training kids to say “I’m sorry” will impact the adults they will become – pushy, arrogant, blaming others. It all comes down to the role of the ego in the way we play as adults. In my experience, ego is the biggest obstacle for adults refusing to admit they’re in the wrong and admitting it by saying I’m sorry.


Alli Polin August 25, 2013 at 6:21 am

Love your insights, LaRae! In fact, it touches on another post I’ve been working on that the behaviors that we learn (and see modeled) as children have an enormous influence on our adult lives.

I agree, as adults, it’s ego that often chooses the silence even when gut may know it’s right to apologize.


Terri Klass August 23, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Saying you’re sorry should be such an automatic, caring response when we hurt others. It’s amazing that children are more concerned with being blamed than doing the right thing.

Wonderful post, Alli and hoping your head is alright. I know I have taken the liberty to speak to kids about hurting others and I was also given cold stares and angry looks. Why can’t parents teach integrity and empathy and just doing what is respectful and right?

Going along with that, leaders owe it to others to model concern and respect and saying they’re sorry when they hurt others, on purpose or not. What a sad commentary on the state of loving one another.


Alli Polin August 25, 2013 at 6:22 am

I think you’re right, Terri. It definitely starts with teaching our children. If we learn as kids that it’s a strength, we carry that forward into our leadership as adults. Many thanks for sharing your insights here!


Samantha August 23, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Ok, so outside of the use of the word ‘loser’, I love this post!

Quick note on that. Have I ever used that word myself or at least THOUGHT it? Yes. (grins) However, I’ve learned (and I’m still learning) that any time we use names to call attention to someone’s negative behavior, it has the OPPOSITE affect. Instead of inspiring any amount of empathy/compassion at all (if it’s even possible in some people) it winds up triggering them even more and putting them further on the defensive. Basically, how can someone be willing to hear us if they are having to protect themselves from our attacks? Even if we feel it is justified, etc.

Otherwise, I’m TOTALLY on the same page sister! : )

That said, for me personally, apologies are not hard at all. If I KNOW that I’ve done something that I shouldn’t have or hurt someone. I have absolutely NO problems apologizing and wanting to do whatever I need to do to rectify the situation.

However, this raises the issue of the ‘unknowns’. If I don’t KNOW that I’ve done or said something to hurt someone else (unintentional), then the other person could wait until hell freezes over before they ever get an apology from me! lol If they don’t own their own feelings and SAY something, there’s no possible way for me to just magically KNOW what the problem is because 1) I don’t own a crystal ball 2) I’m not a mind reader 3) what someone else FEELS is not within my control nor is it my responsibility to ‘caretake’ someone elses feelings unless I’m truly responsible for causing damage to them in some way.

Which leads to another point on this. Just because we may feel ‘hurt’ doesn’t necessarily mean another person has anything to apologize for. ie. We might feel hurt if someone doesn’t give us the attention we want or ‘think’ we deserve. They may be juggling 5 million things on their plate right now. Job. Kids. Responsibilities. And people can sometimes get too easily offended and make assumptions about the lack of attention that has NOTHING to do with the person NEEDING the attention. So in cases like that (and similar) it’s not really the responsibility of the other person but the one who FEELS slighted in some way.

That’s when we need to take ownership for our own feelings. If someone else isn’t or can’t give us the attention we want, need, or expect in that moment, how can we give ourselves attention? How can we take some responsibility for getting some of our own needs met instead of projecting that responsibility elsewhere?

All around, good insights Alli.

Sincere apologies are in short supply these days. It would be ‘nice’ if people could muster up the courage to apologize when it’s called for. Unfortunately there are no guarantees that people will. Then we have a choice to make as to how many times we want to put up with the same behaviors from the same person. When we grow tired of it, the only person that can change the situation is ourselves. If the other person won’t acknowledge the issue and make efforts to rectify it, then we need to decide not to invest our time there anymore.

And that isn’t always an easy decision to make either.

Again, another great post my friend!


Alli Polin August 25, 2013 at 6:45 am


Your response here has really touched me. You’ve made many great points and a few of them truly stick out to me. I’m grateful that you took that time to share them here and add so much to this post and to this topic.

First of all, I agree, nobody is truly a loser – it’s more right and wrong (and good blog headlines ;))

Not knowing that you’ve done something wrong really hits home. I’ve gotten into bed too many times and my husband and turned to me with his hurt feelings from actions that I hardly remember doing. If we don’t speak up, especially close in time to when we’re hurt, all we are left with is hurt feelings that can never be resolved. We are most definitely not mind readers! (most of us at least).

Even more than asking for an apology, it’s the act being vulnerable enough to let others know that we’re hurting. We will never know that our BFF didn’t call because they were stuck late at work unless we communicate! In lieu of information, we usually make up stories that deepens the hurt and puts our feelings of “less than” front and center. Not good. Even if it’s not an apology that’s in order in that case, we can give love and support.

In your last case, when gee, we really were getting the blow off… it’s probably not an apology we need as much as a little more strength and courage to fully know that we are enough and don’t need an apology to feel whole.

You are sincerely incredible, Samantha. I’m so lucky that I’ve connected with you.

xoxo –



Alice Chan August 25, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Alli, completely agree that we need to have the humility to say “sorry” when we inflict harm unintentionally. A trait of a good leader is to recognize that no one is infallible, and that we need to honor humanity in everyone. And part of being human is that we’re going to mess up sometimes, again, even if unintentional. I actually have side reaction to your post that’s a off-topic. That is, I’m a bit concerned that the younger generations these days haven’t be taught to say “thank you” and “sorry.” What would that do to future leadership? Again, a bit off topic but somewhat related. 🙂 Thanks again for another great leadership metaphor from real life, Alli!


Alli Polin August 26, 2013 at 7:36 am


You know, I’ve been asking myself the same questions. What will the next generation of leaders be like based on what I’m seeing and how can I choose to raise my children that will not only make me proud but will make them proud of who they are.

We are all human and we all mess up! It’s what happens when we mess up that says the most about our character.

Thanks so much, Alice!


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