Paul Hargreaves: Being Contrite
I have used some of the extra time during lockdown not travelling to the office or further afield to research the characteristics of good leaders, which will form the basis of a new book. One of these is being contrite, which is an old-fashioned word for being able to say sorry or rather being of that attitude continually. How some of our politicians could do with more of this I hear you say! For them and many leaders, ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word’ as Elton John once sang. I was one of many people watching television during the Dominic Cummings garden press conference shouting, “Just say sorry!”.
Why is it that many leaders find saying sorry hard? I’m not sure I completely know the answer to that question as I don’t have a problem saying sorry to my leadership or wider team or indeed family when I know I have screwed up, and, as you can imagine, I have had plenty of practice. I think there is a widespread myth that being contrite is a sign of weakness as a leader. Many leaders imagine that people want a strong leader who never makes mistakes. That really is pie in the sky, no-one is so foolish to believe that leaders aren’t human. People would far rather be led by people who own up to their mistakes and admit when they have done wrong, as this connects them with their people, who know all too well they have made mistakes too. So rather than being a sign of weakness, showing contrition or readily saying sorry is a sign of strength not weakness in my view.
However, being contrite is not just about saying sorry. That carries little weight if we continue to make the same mistakes time and time again. Being contrite is also about a change in behaviour after screwing up. As the Canadian rapper Drake said, “Saying sorry doesn’t solve the problem. It’s what you do after that that counts.” How true is that in the current situation in the world with the #blacklivesmatter protests. Leaders expressing sorrow for historical evil or abominable behaviour last week is absolutely worthless without a change in behaviour today and tomorrow. It is almost worse as can be viewed as hypocritical at best. No true leadership is about being humbly contrite, making reparation and then behaving differently and encouraging others to behave differently thereafter.