by Achim Nowak

Great Leaders Apologize WELL

November 7, 2022

Here’s a chat I had with my friend Carl Ficks last year, sitting at the counter at Java &  Jam in Downtown Ft. Lauderdale, having a mid-morning breakfast.

I remember checking into a hotel, said Carl, a former trial lawyer turned fitness mentor to stressed executives, and I didn’t behave very well toward the young lady behind the counter.

Carl paused and elaborated. As I left that conversation, I thought to myself, ‘wait a minute, I wouldn’t want anyone to act toward my two daughters the way I behaved right now.’

Another pause. So I went to a nearby Starbucks and got a $ 25 gift card. Went back to the hotel and gave it to the young lady behind the check-in counter.

She thanked me, explained Carl, and saidbut you didn’t have to do that.’

Of course, not. Carl didn’t have to do anything.

Especially when we have power, or the illusion of it, as might be the case in an exchange between a guest and a hotel employee.

Carl’s amends was a choice. The beauty was that it came swiftly.

And Carl, of course, made the amends for himself.

Karma means that all actions have consequences. Grace means that in a moment of atonement – taking responsibility, making amends, asking for forgiveness – all karma is burned.”

Marianne Williamson

Carl’s tale may read like a feel-good story. Please think of it as a story of ultimate self-leadership.

In our stressed and over-extended lives, we all have moments when we mis-speak or act in a manner that we later regret. When, momentarily, how we show up in the world does not match our deepest values and beliefs.

We all do it. We often don’t actually notice that we do. And even when we notice, we are slow to make an amends. Worse yet, we are tempted to minimize the disconnect between our public behavior and our inner values, and talk ourselves out of an amends.

Carl noticed. And he acted. Quickly.

The rewards of a swift amends are endless. I trust this is inherently clear. Here’s how you get to a quick amends, well, a little more quickly.

Deepen your self-awareness.

Self-awareness sometimes sounds like just another leadership buzz word, doesn’t it! What do I actually mean by that phrase? For one, self-awareness is more than an inside job.

Let’s begin with the externals of self-awareness: I notice the impact my words and actions have on another person or group of people, in the moment. I especially notice if my words or actions create discomfort or withdrawal in the other party. Discomfort is not inherently a bad thing - unless discomfort is not the impact I wish to have.

The internals of self-awareness? Something “doesn’t feel right.” I’m in the middle of a situation and it “doesn’t feel good.” I have a queasy feeling in my stomach – and not because I ate something bad over lunch. I stress the word feel because that really is what it is. My gut, my intuition, my sixth sense – call it what you will – tells me that something is not right in a situation.

I have learned to receive such signals. And I do a quick gut-check – what is causing this discomfort? Is it anything I am saying or doing?

Notice a mis-step.

The above is the pre-requisite. Without it, noticing a mis-step becomes a lot tougher, unless our actions are so egregious, and their impact on others so blatantly evident, that ignoring what’s wrong is near impossible. At worst, we become conscious of a mis-step when another person “calls us out.”

That “call-out” clarity can be helpful. True self-leadership, however, does not wait to be called out. It notices a signal, external or internal. It inherently knows the nature of the mis-step. And it is animated by a willingness to assume responsibility.

It notices, not in hindsight or upon reflection. It notices in the moment. It trusts what it notices. It doesn’t shun the mis-step. Doesn’t wish it away.

It notices expeditiously.

It accepts.

Act quickly.

This is the gift of Carl’s story: Once Carl sensed that his behavior toward the hotel clerk had been “off,” Carl took action.

He did not second-guess himself. Didn’t try to analyze his way out of his behavior. Like, you know, perhaps the hotel clerk is having a bad day. What I did wasn’t so bad. I mean, I would apologize if this relationship mattered, but the woman is a complete stranger to me.

No, none of that. Carl assumed responsibility.

And acting quickly wasn’t about the gift card, of course. It was about accepting his behavior. And getting to the amends at once.

Let it go.

The rewards of a quick amends are endless. I can stop ruminating about my mis-step. I can stop agonizing about whether I should engage in a corrective action. I can discard the temptation to ceaselessly find ways of justifying my mis-step. I hadn’t slept well. I am under a lot of pressure. I never had good customer service at this hotel. I really hate this hotel, anyway.

When I don’t act quickly, I become my own energy vampire. The energy vampire tortures me by replaying a past moment that I have not cleaned up. The energy vampire also seeps into my sub-conscious with a leering sense that I am one of those people who doesn’t act in line with his purported beliefs or values. Someone who is, at her best, a bit of a fraud. At his worst, a jerk.

All of this will simmer right below the surface because I have not let the moment go. The amends is, in fact, my letting-go-valve.

It purifies my polluted psychic realm.

It allows me to show up fully present for my next social encounter.

It sets me free from the baggage of my past mis-deeds.

If the notion of self-leadership and a higher degree of personal mastery is of interest to you, swifter amends will be one of your great personal growth accelerators.

It starts with a heightened self-awareness.

This heightened awareness invites me to quickly sense when I have mis-stepped.

When I mis-step, I have the courage to make a swift amends.

And I am willing to let it go.

In the end, so simple, isn’t it? Do more of it, please.

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