The Dangers of Unapologetic Leadership

Become A Better Leader By Becoming A Better Learner


a black bull's horns in front of a black background

A few days ago, one of my readers messaged me with this comment: “Recently I had a conversation with someone I respect greatly [who] stated that it is important for leaders…to never say they are sorry. I feel so strongly that this is an outdated belief.”


Like my reader, I’m disturbed by the misguided idea that leaders should never apologize. It’s 2021, after all. I’m especially saddened that someone who presumably wields authority is encouraging this kind of thinking.


Yet it’s clear that some managers (I can’t accurately call them leaders) still model and espouse this dangerous mindset. I ran into it as a CFO at Microsoft, and I sometimes see it in my executive coaching practice today.


The person who’s unwilling to apologize is often the same person who’s unwilling to admit they’re wrong. Whether this unwillingness emanates from a misunderstanding of true leadership or from a sincere belief in one’s own perfection, anyone who refuses to admit error closes the door on enormous opportunities to learn, grow, and find the best solutions to big hairy problems.


‍Leaders Are Willing To Learn


In his book Conscious Business, Fred Kofman distinguishes between two groups: “knowers” and “learners.” Kofman asserts that knowers stake their self-esteem on always being right, while learners stay open to possibilities and seek the best ideas for tough challenges. Knowers circumscribe their thinking to what they believe they know, while learners see no boundaries and strive to consider all the possibilities.


Knowers also tend to see intelligence and capability as fixed quantities. In the knower’s view, you’re either born intelligent and capable or you’re not. You’re stuck with what you’ve got, with no room for growth one way or the other.


Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck confirms the limits and perils of a fixed mindset. In her widely acclaimed book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck demonstrates that both intelligence and capability can significantly increase through focused effort.


This growth mindset now serves as a central tenet of many forward-thinking corporate cultures, including those at Amazon and Microsoft.


But alarmingly, I still encounter the knower mindset when I coach executives at these organizations and many others.


Identifying The Knower Mindset


Superb leaders abhor the knower mindset, so it’s worth learning what not to do. Drawing on Kofman’s framework, the Stagen Leadership Academy describes knower behavior this way:

  1. Knowers believe intelligence and capability can’t increase, and effort does little to improve them.

  2. Knowers deny their learning gaps, so they’re closed to new ideas and approaches.

  3. Knowers place little value on feedback, especially if it’s inconsistent with their perspective.

  4. Knowers are preoccupied with appearing competent. They get defensive when others question their performance.

  5. Knowers see mistakes and setbacks as failures or proof of inability, and thus miss learning from them.

Identifying The Learner Mindset


Learners, as described by Stagen Leadership Academy, behave much more resourcefully.

  1. Learners believe intelligence and capability are fluid, and improve upon them through effort.

  2. Learners see learning gaps as fundamental and work hard to close them with new ideas and approaches.

  3. Learners consider feedback invaluable. They actively seek it, especially from those whose perspectives are different than their own.

  4. Learners believe incompetence is a temporary state. They acknowledge their incompetence, embracing it as an opportunity to learn and improve.

  5. Learners consider that mistakes and setbacks are inevitable. They see them as confirmation of effort, and they persist in the face of frustration.


An Antiquated Practice


I have to assume that the manager who advocated never saying “sorry” was somehow lured into the vortex of knowership long ago. He may be innocently perpetuating an antiquated and long-debunked management technique that he was taught.


But it’s hard for me to believe that never apologizing is working for this manager, or for anyone around him. I sincerely hope someone will show him Kofman’s and Dweck’s books, or share this article with him.


How To Become A Learner – And A Leader


As I’ve written before, leadership is a choice. Choose to be a superb one. Don’t be a knower manager. Shake off the ugly debris of that mindset and emerge as a true leader with a learner mindset.


Make it a habit to ask the people around you for their honest feedback. Open your mind to what you hear, and learn from it. When something is your bad, own it – and find the opportunity therein to grow.


Most of all, find the fearlessness in you to say “sorry” when it’s due. With everything else you’ll be learning by listening to those around you, you’ll find that apologizing can be a potent leadership superpower.