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Humility in leadership

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By Johanne Bouchard EBS Business Columnist

When people ask me what a strong leader’s greatest quality is, I tell them, “humility.”

Humility frees us from the illusion of perfection, empowers individuals, and strengthens leaders. When one is humble, he or she admits mistakes, doesn’t take things personally, and doesn’t get defensive. When you think about the great leaders who truly inspire you, I bet they all are humble at their core.

I was raised to admit when I was wrong. While I was often embarrassed to apologize, I realized it freed me, and not because the situation had passed. Rather it reminded me that I wasn’t perfect. It also helped me consciously not repeat the same mistakes.

Here’s my approach to apologizing gracefully in both personal and business situations:

Accept if you’re in the wrong. You can’t apologize if you’re unable to admit to yourself that you made a mistake – avoid being in denial. The apology begins with you, which is humbling especially when you are your own harshest critic, a perfectionist or a high achiever.

Consider the ramifications of being prideful. When you make a mistake with a business partner, prospect or customer, think about the ripple effects of being prideful and not apologizing. Owning up to a mistake can minimize the damage you might have caused. Think beyond the immediate situation to reestablish your credibility and respect.

Apologize quickly. Don’t brush over the situation, and don’t delay apologizing. Being silent and pretending that everything will eventually be forgotten doesn’t benefit you or the recipient of the mistake. It can create the risk of gossip or escalation, either of which can irreparably taint your reputation.

Apologize with sincerity. Find the courage to reach out to the individuals you’ve offended and personally offer the words, “I apologize.” Don’t let anyone else be the messenger.

Offer a token of your appreciation. Apologizing is the first step, the next course of action is to make up for any inconvenience your mistake might have caused.

Examples of appropriate apologies:

– If you’re a restaurant server or owner, and you’ve unintentionally poured wine onto someone’s garment, apologize immediately. Offer to pay for dry cleaning and assure them there will be no charge for their meal.

– If you’re in the hospitality industry and have overbooked accommodations, seating or provisions, immediately notify those affected once you identify the problem. Send a written apology with a gift certificate for more than the value of the original booking.

– As an employer who has humiliated an employee or customer, apologize promptly, and offer a thoughtfully selected gift. Allow them to air their grievances if appropriate, and make sure everyone involved can close the loop to move ahead without resentment.

When you’re in the wrong, do everything common sense allows to show respect for the wronged parties and to minimize the negative ripple effects – it is possible to regain trust. You shouldn’t be embarrassed by humility, but you should be embarrassed if you don’t apologize.

Johanne Bouchard, a former high-tech marketing executive, is a leadership advisor to CEOs, executives and entrepreneurs, as well as an expert in corporate board composition and dynamics. Visit to learn more or download her recently published eBooks “Board Composition” and “Board Basics.”

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