Skip to main content

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

It took decades, generations for communication advisers to convince people in the public eye they should apologize when they do wrong. Sorry. Too little, too late.

In recent months, leaders from the National Football League, Canada's Parliament, Toronto's City Hall and all over the business world have embraced the heartfelt, sometimes teary apology. But according to the 2014 Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor – a survey of perceptions of leadership around the world – empathy is the least important characteristic from a good leader dealing with a crisis.

Story continues below advertisement

At first that was a perplexing finding, until we pieced together the story the data was telling. Then it became clear. The greater context is that credibility of leadership is at an all-time low. Consequently, no one cares if you say you're sorry. No one cares if you say you feel their pain. No one cares because no one believes you.

The most important factors in determining whether people around the world think you're a good leader, especially during times of crisis, are: clear communication, owning up to your mistakes, and decisive action. You have to do what you say you will do.

Consider the belated apology of National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell for the poor way in which he handled the alleged cases of domestic violence some players have been linked to. Mr. Goodell did take responsibility, only after public outrage began to threaten the business of the league. "I didn't get it right. I'm sorry," he said. But he ducked and weaved for so long that his credibility was already shot.

In defence of the public relations profession that has always advocated a sincere apology as one part of a crisis response – at least until the proliferation of faux mea culpas – that is only one piece of a crisis plan. It's not a voluntary shopping list. You have to do it all.

Step No. 1 in crisis mitigation and prevention: Know what your values are.

Step No. 2: Infuse those values in every corner of your organization and live by them.

It's only when you get to step No. 3 that the apology becomes relevant. Step No. 3 is to quickly acknowledge when you have violated your principles, and express sincerely that you understand how that violation has caused pain, and that you are sorry for having caused that pain.

Story continues below advertisement

Step No. 4, then, is to precisely explain how you are going to get back in alignment with your values and report what you are going to do to ensure the fix is effective and enduring.

Step No. 5 is to do what you said you'd do.

Mr. Goodell was dragged reluctantly, by the screaming mob, to step No. 3, which he executed incompletely. And because he was dragged there, he had little or no credibility when he described how he intends to address the issue.

In his most recent affront to Canada's Constitutional democracy, the Prime Minister's parliamentary secretary Paul Calandra did a much more convincing job with step No. 3 – the heartfelt apology. After baldly and repeatedly refusing to answer a direct question in the House of Commons' Question Period from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, and then sticking to his position for the better part of two days, Mr. Calandra eventually rose in the House and, with a cracking voice, said he was sorry.

But he didn't acknowledge the harm he caused, mainly to Canadian faith in the institutions of governments, and he didn't commit to fix his behaviour. In fact, he promised to do it again. "I don't think this will be the last time that I get up and answer a question that doesn't effectively respond," he said in the House.

Throughout the year, we've watched a surreal performance of non-credible apologies from Rob Ford – is it real or is it an illusion? The Ford model is deny, deny, deny, until confronted with incontrovertible proof, and then apologize and redirect. "I'm sorry folks. I'm human. Maybe you have never made a mistake," Mr. Ford has said at numerous times this past year.

Story continues below advertisement

The logical human reaction, based on research around the world, would be for the public to grow weary and cynical. It remains to be seen whether Doug and Rob Ford will be exceptions to the rule.

But overall, the formula for good leadership in crisis, and in general, is pretty simple:

Have a set of values, communicate them clearly and make sure every corner of your organization knows what kind of behaviour is expected. People will forgive a failure. They know organizations are made up of people with human failings. But when there is a failure, own up to it quickly, communicate clearly what you're going to do to fix it and make sure it never happens again, and then take decisive action.

A leader can communicate emphatically about how truly terrible a crisis is, but without a commitment to clear action it is meaningless. And a leader can commit to action, but without great communication, no one knows about it.

A sincere apology as part of crisis management is still a good idea. But if you don't have commitment to a set of values and if you don't consistently do what you say you're going to do, no cascade of crocodile tears will save your leadership credibility.

Geoffrey Rowan is a partner and senior leadership communication counsellor with Ketchum Public Relations Canada (@KetchumCanadaPR).

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter