William McRaven, a retired Navy admiral and former chancellor of the University of Texas System, famously said leading a college was the “toughest job in the nation.” Even in the best of times, colleges are complex organizations, composed of a loosely connected constellation of units pursuing multiple—and sometimes conflicting—goals. Try as they might, leaders aren’t able to closely monitor every part of campus. Leaders must also accommodate the expectations of many constituents, not all of whom agree on the direction to take the institution. Satisfying the wishes of one group, like trustees, can easily lead to problems with another group, such as faculty. Under these conditions, it is inevitable that leaders will stumble.
Of course, these aren’t the best of times. The country continues to grapple with the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. Colleges have contributed to infections, not only among an estimated 250,000 students and employees on campuses, but also throughout their local communities. Attempts to manage rising infections have been costly and, in some cases, woefully inadequate. As a sector, higher education’s response has been confounding at times, with some colleges blaming students for flaunting rules, while others pack residence halls to capacity and welcome more than 10,000 football fans to their stadiums. The pandemic has adversely affected nearly every revenue source for colleges, forcing leaders to explore or enact devastating cuts to programs and positions. By one estimate, colleges have lost a tenth of their employees since February. COVID-19 has made the hard job of leading a college even harder.
Given the complexity of running a college and high probability for error, one might expect apologies from college leaders to be routine. But they are exceptionally rare, particularly in public. I read an entire book on derailed college presidencies, with dozens of cases of ethical lapses, and found hardly a reference to apologizing. A Google search of “college leader apology” yielded several results, but they were often for low-stakes incidents or in response to significant public pressure. More often than not, statements from leaders labeled “apologies” are not really apologies at all. Instead, they offer long explanations, sometimes condemn an action, and may express contrition. I hardly ever see a college leader publicly say: “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Here’s what I’m going to do to fix it and to ensure it won’t happen again.”
This is a problem because apologies are powerful—and necessary for leaders to sustain relationships, model humility, and build flexible organizations dedicated to growth. At a time when faculty, students, and staff are losing their jobs, their health care, and even their lives, restoring trust and repairing relationships through heartfelt apologies must be at the forefront of leaders’ minds.
Why Apologizing Matters
A good apology can defuse a volatile situation and create conditions for a leader to solve problems. I once sat through a multi-hour meeting in which a college leader refused to accept responsibility for persistent issues with equity and inclusion that had been brought to their attention years prior. In many ways, the leader could have taken a major step forward in addressing the problem and mitigating mounting mistrust by actively listening, apologizing, and laying out what they planned to do next. Deflecting responsibility escalated tensions and led to calls for a no-confidence vote in the faculty senate. Not saying sorry when it clearly represents a stepping stone to solutions can prolong problems and potentially cost a leader their job.
A second reason why apologies matter is that humans are imperfect and relationships can’t endure without a means of repairing damages when we inevitably mess up. Psychologist Harriet Lerner, who authored a book all about apologies, has argued that “I’m sorry” are the two most important words in the English language because, as she explained in an interview with Forbes, “a good apology is deeply healing while an absent or bad one can compromise or even end a relationship.” She told Brené Brown in another interview that a heartfelt apology is at the center of everything we hold dear: family, marriage, parenting, and—yes—leadership. Because college leaders’ effectiveness often hinges on forging healthy relationships with constituents, failing to apologize can result in failed leadership.
Leadership scholars have increasingly identified leader humility as a key ingredient in organizational success. According to business professors Bradley Owens and David Hekman, humble leaders acknowledge their limitations, faults, and mistakes. Their study found that humble leaders not only accepted blame for personal foibles, but also took responsibility for their teams’ mistakes. Doing so led to better interactions with colleagues than trying to appear “perfect.” The result of this humility was modeling for others how to grow, giving employees the freedom to similarly be “in process.” It also legitimized uncertainty, making it possible for the organization to experiment, embrace fluidity, and pursue small but continuous changes. Leaders who are willing to own their imperfections can create stronger, more resilient organizations.
Leaders also model behaviors for students. These days, there is frequent talk of teaching students to take risks and be entrepreneurial, and it is important for leaders to show students how to learn and grow from failure. Similarly, college is often described as a place where students learn how to be engaged citizens and participate in civil discourse, the success of which is premised on being able to admit when they’re wrong and work through disagreement. In other words, leaders can turn apologies into learning opportunities—for themselves and for others.
Sometimes an apology doesn’t come with any tangible benefits to a leader or organization. It’s simply the right thing to do. As public servants and leaders of values-based organizations, college leaders should be in the business of doing what’s right when the circumstances demand it, even when it’s incredibly hard.
Why It’s So Hard for College Leaders to Apologize
Lerner noted in interviews that most people are reluctant to apologize because we struggle to be held accountable. Admitting our faults and saying sorry can disrupt the favored image we hold of ourselves. Our natural instinct is to put up defenses and begin crafting an explanation or justification before we’ve heard the full critique. Some leaders may simply be reluctant to own failures they did not personally commit, even if it happened under their watch. And they may not want to take responsibility for mistakes that pre-date their tenure.
Not all apologies need to be public, and there may be plenty of apologizing that happens behind the scenes. Public apologies are especially difficult and can sometimes do more harm than good. Leadership scholar Barbara Kellerman wrote in Harvard Business Review that public apologies are risky, and many leaders only say sorry publicly when the benefits outweigh the costs. “An apology that is too little, too late, or too transparently tactical,” she explained, “can bring on individual and institutional ruin.” If leaders don’t know how to apologize, the result may be an overly edited message heavy on spin and thin on authenticity.
Publicly apologizing requires vulnerability and courage. Although research suggests followers perceive leaders who apologize as more transformational, not all constituents value vulnerability and may be more interested in protecting the reputation of the institution. Many college leaders have lost their jobs for taking bold but necessary action. Dennis Barden, a search consultant writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, argued that the fallout after making a hard decision—even if it’s the right call—can make it difficult for a college leader to land a new job. If they are concerned they’ll never be given another chance, leaders are likely to be risk-averse.
When I pointed out on my Twitter feed how college leaders rarely apologize, several people suggested it’s an effort to avoid legal problems. Nora Devlin, a PhD candidate at Rutgers University who has studied numerous lawsuits between institutions and faculty, told me: “I definitely think it’s about legal liability. Certainly, there are also some presidents who don’t apologize for egotistical reasons … but I think that a big part of it is that the general counsel’s office tells them that if they admit fault for something they are opening themselves up to a lawsuit.”
However, the jury is still out about whether silence helps leaders avoid lawsuits. In fact, Erin Hennessy, vice president at the consulting firm TVP Communications, shared in an email: “often a thoughtful and sincere apology can help deescalate a situation and perhaps avoid litigation altogether.” I also put this question to Scott Schneider, a higher education lawyer at Husch Blackwell, who told me resistance to apologies comes less from legal counsel than from public relations/communications staff attempting to reduce reputational damage. In his experience, however, “basic humanity always gets rewarded.”
Fear of lawsuits or bad press may explain why I have read several statements from college leaders in which they don’t personally apologize, but rather extend an apology on behalf of the organization. These statements make generous use of passive voice (e.g., mistakes were made, actions were regrettable) and the collective “we” (e.g., we were wrong and must do better). This makes it harder to point the finger at any one individual. It also makes for a really bad apology.
Try It With Me Now
A bad apology is sometimes worse than no apology at all. Thankfully, several experts have put serious thought into heartfelt apologies. Lerner explained that good apologies start with listening—to fully understand how our actions caused pain or problems. We can’t make amends until we truly understand how we fell short. Listening makes it possible to name the specific mistake or harm committed in our apology. A good apology isn’t followed by a justification, excuse, or “but.” It also doesn’t bring up the faults or errors of the person or groups to whom you are apologizing.
Beyond saying sorry, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has explained in several Twitter threads and an article in The Washington Post how to apologize for mistakes through the process of “tshuvah,” or repentance. Listening and apologizing are important, but Ruttenberg also emphasizes the importance of not continuing to make the same mistakes, proactively fixing what might have been broken, and offering restitution. These things should be done without expectation of forgiveness, which Ruttenberg says is ultimately up to the person or group hearing the apology. Ensuring that problems don’t resurface often requires doing inner work, which means that apologies are part of a deep change process. Leaders can’t expect to issue a statement or send an email and move on.
Hennessy said that when she works with clients, she stresses that the apology should be specific, unequivocal, and timely. “Nothing is worse,” she explained, “than a half-hearted, I'm-sorry-if-you-were-offended apology—they feel awful coming from friends or family, and they feel just as bad coming from institutional leadership.” If a leader pledges to do better, Hennessy says they should share their progress and be held accountable.
Following each of these steps may sound like more demands added to the already demanding job of leading a college. But heartfelt apologies should be considered an essential leadership practice. Although an apology won’t fix everything and leaders can’t escape hard decisions, a dose of humility can ensure those hard choices don’t lead to irreparable harm.