There’s this awesome scene in Parenthood where Adam tells his brother, Crosby, to just suck it up and apologize to his mother-in-law for something that had happened.
“For what? I didn’t do anything!” Crosby protests.
Adam answers, “It’s just… you know what? You’re a man. It’s just what men do. We apologize. I say three ‘I’m sorry’s before I get out of bed in the morning.”
Smart. It’s true. Sometimes, you just apologize.
But Adam is wrong about the man thing. I think it’s an everyone thing. It’s certainly a leadership thing. When you’re a leader, apologizing isn’t at all about if you’re right or wrong. It’s about something simpler. It’s the right thing to say. I’m sorry. Sorry for a situation that sucks. Sorry for a bad decision on someone else’s part. I’m sorry. Just sorry.
Not long ago, a couple students got into some silly scuffle. These two have been classmates for several years now, especially if you count their time together in preschool, and they are sick, sick, sick of each other. They actively seek ways to get on one another’s nerves. They each wish for nothing more than for the other one to get in trouble for something. Anything. So, on this particular day, we had yet another version of the same story that has been told between these two kids for months now: Kid #1 took an item from Kid #2 and threw it in the trash. Kid #1 didn’t admit it, in spite of a long and involved search for said item. Another kid ratted out Kid #1 and the item was retrieved. Kid #1 got in trouble for being mean. I called her parents; they understood, promised to deal with it at home, everything good.
And then, with a sick feeling in my stomach, I called the mother of Kid #2. This woman is challenging; I’ve had enough interactions with her to know it wasn’t going to be a pretty phone call. I knew she’d be really, really pissed. And she was, but this time, she went even farther off the reservation than I’d ever predicted she would. She screamed at me. Screamed. Said she’s sick of Kid #2 picking on Kid #1, she’s sick of her kid being bullied, she’s sick of this school, she’s sick of me. She’s sick of me putting her kid in danger (!??!), sick of me not expelling Kid #1 (!?!?!), sick of the whole *&$@%( school (!?!?!). She said a whole bunch of other things, too—mostly about my incompetence.
“I’m sorry,” I said, about five hundred times.
I had nothing to be sorry for, if you got right down to it. I wasn’t even in the building when this particular incident happened. I’ve done everything exactly as I should have with these two kids—investigate, intervene, communicate, make a plan for going forward. Of all things, I shouldn’t be sorry, for cryin’ out loud.
But I recognize that it’s my job to be sorry, to apologize, to recognize that this woman was frustrated and angry and needed someone who would take her fury. I knew there was nothing I could do to make her feel better—except, maybe, apologize.
I do it a lot, just like Adam says he does. I say I’m sorry. Three times before getting out of bed, it seems. And all throughout the day. It’s what leaders do. We be sorry.