Never Say “If” When You Apologize

If I offended anyone…

That statement rips through the heart of every public relations professional when she hears her client stand up and use the conditional “if” while making an apology.

Nothing undercuts sincerity like the conditional “if” does.

Imagine this. You are in a boutique that sells fine china. You have a backpack draped over your shoulder. You turn slightly to see another display, only to hear the crash of china smashing to the floor in bits.

The store owner comes running over with a look of horror. You say, “If I broke this china, sorry.”

Of course, you broke the china; it’s lying in a hundred pieces on the floor. There are no ifs, ands, or buts when you do something careless or hurtful. 

Offense provokes a response

How do we know this? Because you are making an apology. We don’t apologize for saying nice things about other people. We apologize when we say something stupid that offends.

Using the conditional is supposed to let you off the hook. But, instead, what we are saying is, “I didn’t know what I was saying.” Admitting something like that in public does nothing to improve your authenticity. If true, you sound clueless. If not—which is more likely the case—you seem insincere.

That old sincerity thing again. 

Origin of apology

The real problem with using the conditional if in an apology is that you are putting your ego ahead of another person’s pain. By using if you are saying, “Hey, I am only doing this because my boss (my company, my banker, my spouse, etc.) want me to.” 

Such words are in keeping with the word’s original meaning, apologia, meaning “in defense of.” Until the 17th-century, apologias were made in defense of a cause. But something changed. According to the Merriam-Webster definition, William Shakespeare is credited with popularizing apology as in, “I’m sorry.” And to which he added something even more critical. Forgiveness.

Quality of mercy

When you make a mistake, own it. Again. And ask for forgiveness. 

The point of an apology is to say that you are sorry, not that you “may have offended.” Sorrow is a way of showing compassion to someone you have wronged. Apologizing is not a sign of weakness; it is an admission of humility. You put yourself at the mercy of another. As the Bard wrote in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

A good apology may evoke the need for forgiveness, which as Shakespeare notes, rewards the one who forgives as well as the one who is forgiven. Nothing to be sorry about in that sentiment.

First posted on 00.00.2022

What Broadway Understudies Can Teach Us

The understudy position is a tradition within the theatre community. An understudy learns the lead role or two, and if the star is indisposed, steps in and performs the part. Some understudies have become stars themselves, among them Shirley MacLaine, Elaine Stritch, Vivian Vance, and Bernadette Peters.

Today the role of understudy is in the spotlight. With the Omicron variant of Covid sweeping through our country, theaters are not spared. Recently Hugh Jackman, starring in a revival of the Music Man, salutedKathy Voytko, who, with eight hours’ notice, stepped into the role Marian the librarian. “The courage, the brilliance, the dedication, the talent,” Jackman said at the close of the performance. “The swings, the understudies, they are the bedrock of Broadway.”

Understudies on stage

Elliott Masie, who produces shows on Broadway,recently penned a piece about the roles of understudies and a term new to me, swings. Swings learn multiple roles and are ready to jump in when needed. 

When Covid struck in March of 2020, Elliott began staging The Empathy Concerts. These concerts have become an avenue for Broadway performers to perform in virtual productions open to the public. It has been an excellent opportunity for singers and actors to keep their craft alive in front of a live (albeit virtual) audience. 

Recently, Allie Trimm, who has performed in an Empathy Concert, assumed the lead role of Glinda in the show, Wicked. As Elliott writes, her parents flew the red-eye from the West Coast to see their daughter perform on Broadway. Thrills for all.

Understudies in organizations

Elliott, who runs a learning, technology, and development company, believes that the roles of understudy and swings have applications to the off-stage world. 

Consider an understudy being groomed for the senior-most roles in the C-suite. Of course, these individuals have to know the business, but they must also possess the ability to lead others, just as an understudy would if she were in a lead role.

Swing performers are vital to the organization because they can move into new roles and responsibilities by virtue of their talent and their capacity to acquire new skills. In addition, they are agile and perfect for a world where change is endemic.

Whether you are being readied for a role in senior leadership or have opportunities to assume new responsibilities beyond your immediate job, the challenge is to be prepared. This commitment to learning requires a willingness to learn and personal growth. Then, like understudies and swings, you learn new skills to assume a new role. 

Understudies in service

There is another aspect of the understudy role: service. Often, an understudy will never assume the lead role, yet as every lead actor knows, someone behind her can step in and do the part. Being an understudy is a commitment to the team. Understudies prepare themselves to step into the role. In doing so, they keep the production rolling, and the audience entertained.

After all, the show must go on!

First posted on 1.29.22

What Bob Dole Taught Us

Upon the passing for Senator Robert Dole, I wrote a piece for about the man and his service to the nation. You can read it here.

Thinking further on Doe’s life, I want to draw up five lessons his example teaches us.

Value sacrifice. Bob Dole grew up in Russell, Kansas. He was called to service in World War II and served bravely, suffering grave wounds. As a Senator he worked hard for veteran’s rights.

Work hard with others. Bob Dole was a fierce partisan, but not so fierce that he was not able to see the better angels of others on the other side of the aisle. His cause was not a better party, but a better America.

Don’t bear grudges. Fellow World War II veteran George H.W. Bush was a fierce rival for the presidency. The two sparred often, but when the political game was over, the two become fast friends. Dole’s salute to President Bush’s casket is testimony to his respect and friendship.

Laugh at yourself. Bob Dole did not filter himself very well, but when he made a gaffe, he apologized, often with a joke at his own expense. He also penned a book on political humor.

Know your purpose. Service to the nation was his calling, from his days in the Army to his days in the Senate, Bob Dole knew that he was elected to serve the people, not the other way around.

Godspeed, Bob Dole.

First posted on LinkedIn 12.12.2021

There’s No Business in Showing Off

In golf, there’s a saying: “Drive for show and putt for dough.” Every golfer likes to hit it long off the tee, watching the ball soar up and drop far, far down the fairway. But, unfortunately, long drives do not win tournaments. Putting does. The difference is getting onto the green, reading the break, and then stroking the ball into the cup to make par or birdie.

Working for show

This saying came to mind after reading “Office theatrics” by Bartleby, the work and management columnist for The Economist. The column cites examples of how the virtual and even the hybrid workplace turned work into a performance. That is, employees were feeling it necessary to show off how busy they were. “The simple act of logging on is now public,” writes Bartleby. “Green dots by your name on messaging channels are the virtual equivalents of jackets left on chairs and monitors turned on. Calendars are now frequently shared: empty ones look lazy; full ones appear virtuous.”

According to two academic studies from France, research “found that white-collar professionals are drawn to a level of ‘optimal busyness,’ which neither overwhelms them nor leaves them with much time to think.” Such an example, being French, reminded me of the Palace of Versailles, where noblemen and noblewomen competed among themselves to look the grandest. And this being Versailles did nothing productive.

On the surface, these examples are funny, but when you think more deeply, you realize that these behaviors are protective measures. The boss wants me to be busy, so I will show him how busy I am. Busyness is not a goal; productivity is. Yet showmanship praises the former and ignores the latter. The fault lies with management. It has put employees on the defensive. The time is now to neutralize that adversarial stance.

Producing for results

“You can fool all of the people some of the time, you can fool some of the people all of the time,” Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” Fooling around hurts not only morale but productivity. 

Ask people how they want to work. People react to the system handed to them. Give them a voice in how they do their work and when. In a hybrid environment, flexibility can be a virtue. 

Make recognition a team affair. Employees know who contributes a great deal and who does less. Honor the team for what it does. Ask the team to cite the contributions of its members.

State clear metrics on productivity. Make it known what people need to do. For example, there will not be bonus points for “showing off.” Instead, there will be recognition and reward for creativity, initiative and collaboration.

Find time to play. There hasn’t been much levity during this pandemic, and it shows. Employees are weary. Insist that employees take time off without the need to check their devices for messages, texts or email.

Fooling the boss is the result of conditions created by management. Undoing those conditions and treating people with respect will change the equation. And get the work done right.

First posted on 00/00/2022

What I Learned about Coaching from Speechwriting

Much is written as well as taught about the process of executive coaching. For me, my introduction began with my first career: speechwriting.

Speechwriters are storytellers. They help leaders put their stories into words.

Executive coaches are story makers. They help leaders create their stories to grow their skills as individuals and their capacity as leaders.

Speechwriting and executive coaching are, of course, two distinct disciplines. Speechwriters work with words. Executive coaches work with behaviors. Both are in the self-improvement business. One focuses on words. The other on actions. Both focus on the same goal: authenticity. Keeping it real with honesty, integrity and compassion.

Speechwriters and coaches emulate each other’s professions with how they begin their processes—with good questions! Here are three good starter questions.

What’s happening? Context is essential. Both speechwriters and coaches need to know the lay of the land. How is the organization performing? What does the competitive landscape look like? Placing the speech in the context of vision (what the organization wants to become), mission (what the organization is doing), and values (what holds the organization together) is essential.

What challenges are facing the organization? Even in the best of times, there are clouds on the horizon. As well as rainbows. Asking your client (or her aides) to give a quick overview of organizational strengths, structural weaknesses, opportunities for growth, and threats to the status quo or the future is an excellent way to get a feel for the challenges. Speechwriters can integrate some topics into their presentations. Coaches use this information to know the challenges the executive is facing.

What is our plan of action? Good speeches are calls to action. Good coaching is anchored in action planning. It is the speechwriter’s job to encourage the client to be specific in what the organization will do and what role the audience (stakeholders) will play in it. It is the job of an executive coach to encourage the client to look at what they can improve and be specific about road-mapping action steps.

These questions may spark a host of other questions, but these three provide a framework for discussion that gets to the heart of the matter. They place the speechwriter or the coach on the road to understanding their client better.

Touching the heart

These questions are diagnostic. There is one other element: the heart. We call it empathy.

Empathy is the feeling of understanding another person’s suffering. Leaders need to do more than understand; they need to alleviate. They act with compassion to make things better for an individual and the team. 

Speechwriters who tap into the vein of empathy through stories and examples will enable their clients to come across with a sense of concern for others. Likewise, executive coaches who remind their clients to connect with their people on a personal and professional level enable them to build a strong sense of rapport and commitment.

“We speak not only to tell other people what we think,” wrote neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, “but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.” And to which I add “the impetus to act.”

First posted on 1/07/2022

Watching Ted Lasso Can Make You a Better Manager

Say you land a job about which you know little, in a field you know even less about, and in a country different from your own. If you do, you will be emulating the premise of Ted Lasso, a new show from Apple TV+.

The good news is that Ted Lasso, co-created by Jason Sudekis and stars in the title role, is a comedy. The better news is that the 10-part television series is an insightful primer on management and leadership.

Lasso is an American college football coach hired to manage a “football” (soccer) team in England’s Premier League, the world’s highest competitive soccer league. An outlandish premise, yes, but a treat to watch as well as from which to learn. 

You see, Lasso is an everyman who makes up for what he doesn’t know about English football with a deep and profound understanding of human nature, in particular as it applies to creating a team culture. Without divulging the plot twists and turns (and delights), the series reveals vital lessons that every manager would be wise to follow.

Trust your people. Lasso’s right-hand man is Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt). The two have a long history together, and while they do not always agree, they trust one another. The two of them readily embrace the outside perspective that comes in the form of the team kit man, Nathan (Nick Mohammed).

Lay back. To me, the heart of Ted Lasso’s leadership is “laissez-faire.” It is an endearing quality that adds charm to his character while it reveals his faith in people. Lasso sees talent, skill and desire in players that others may overlook. That is the genius of the manager. Look at the best in others and allow them to prove themselves. 

Make tough decisions. Management calls for setting direction and ensuring that the train stays on the rails. Leadership requires making tough decisions about people. Lasso’s natural style is laid back as it relates to people, but he knows that his role is to make the final call. He does it so well that others emulate his example.

Believe. In the first episode, Lasso posts a handwritten sign saying “Believe” over the door to his office, which by the way, has a very open-door policy. Lasso does what all great managers do: enable people to believe in themselves. (Yes, you will find such signs in every high school and college locker room, but with Lasso, the message is not a cliché; it resonates with authenticity.) 

Believe begets confidence

Belief in self is what distinguishes the winners from the also-rans. Belief is the cornerstone of confidence, which is essential to leadership. People have to believe that the person in charge is capable of doing the job. That sentiment leads to faith in the leader. And when the leader can turn, dare say transmute, that confidence to the team, great things can occur.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. That statement can be ascribed to Ted Lasso because the root of his ability to connect with others is his willingness to trust them. He looks at people with an open heart, a willingness to suspend judgment as a means of enabling them to fulfill their role in the team.

Managers who balance direction with guidance, belief with confidence, and purpose with conviction, are those who point their teams in the right direction and watch them soar. Or at least do their very best.

First posted on 9.21.2020

Three Lessons in Speaking Out

Anyone following the news in the past year or knows of Fiona Hill, the White House advisor for Eastern European affairs. She was called to testify before Congress as a “fact witness” related to the Trump Administration’s interactions with Russia and Ukraine. Her testimony was solid, and she gained positive recognition for her steadfast demeanor and professionalism.

We did not know that Fiona Hill was also acting—not dissembling but delivering her presentation in an ice-cold room. As she told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Hill had been given a heads up by a woman colleague who said that men in suits liked the room cold so they would not be seen sweating under the lights. That is cold comfort for women, of course. 

The backstory

Ms. Hill’s insights into the presentation, which come from her memoir, There Is Nothing for You Here, provides an inside look at the relations between Trump and Vladimir Putin and the Administration’s handling of the Ukraine issue.

Before she testified in public, she was subject to scrutiny. Immediately, the team of lawyers told her, ‘Well, we’ll need to have someone to do your hair and your makeup, and we’ll need to kind of figure out how you look on the day.’ And I felt, ‘Really? Do they do this for men as well?’” As she explained, she thought she had put such things behind her, but as she concluded, “I always thought when I was younger, like ‘God, I’m not going to be 14 forever, and eventually this won’t matter.’ And you get to be 54, and it still matters, particularly if you’re a woman.”

Years earlier, however, Hill’s undistinguished looks may have given her a front-row seat to history. It was 2004, and she was seated next to Vladimir Putin. Hill was told later that it was because she was not beautiful and would not draw attention to herself. A man, she was told, would be noticed and the subject to speculation about who he was. A woman in her late thirties who was dressed plainly would not.

Steel yourself to speak

These stories, and many more, illustrate the discrepancy between how women and men are treated in public settings. None of her stories are unusual, save for the backdrop of international affairs and history. What is remarkable is Fiona Hill’s strong sense of self. And for that reason, her insight into public presentation has relevance. 

Plan ahead. For presentations, know your audience. What do they expect from you, and what will you deliver? Ideally, you constantly tailor your presentation to the audience, but you may want to hold sensitive topics back until asked in certain situations. 

Know the terrain. Fiona Hill knew the room would be cold, and she took the advice of a woman colleague who told her to plant her feet firmly on the floor as a means of physically grounding herself against the chill. Such a stance also enabled Ms. Hill to stay calm and allow her adrenaline to kick in.

Believe in yourself. Self-awareness is essential to demeanor. What you know about yourself can give you the confidence to stand up to challenges, either verbal or career-wise. In addition, taking stock of your strengths will buttress the negative emotions that may arise in times of crisis.

Fiona Hill has served her adopted country for decades as an analyst and advisor.  When the light of history shone its brightest on her, she delivered a lesson in maintaining composure as well as credibility.

Adapted from 00.00.2021

Colin Powell: Legacy Matters

Listening to the comments of those he worked with, we come away with a picture of Colin Powell that is very much aligned with our impressions of him, but more so now that he has died.

A general. A warfighter. A peacemaker. A diplomat. A mentor. 

Retired admiral James Stavridisspeaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Powell’s sense of civility and grace. Our impression of generals is too often that of bold, brash and take charge. Powell did the latter well, but he did it with a worldview shaped by his background and his service as a frontline combat soldier. 

No one hates war more than soldiers do, Stravridis said, quoting William Tecumseh Sherman and applying it to Powell. Having seen the cost of war up close and personally in Vietnam, he sought to avoid it. But, if it were inevitable, as seen in the first Gulf War, it must be waged vigorously and with the end in sight. 

Sadly, no exit strategy was in sight, as Secretary of State in 2003 made a case for war in Iraq because it was believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, at least by the Bush administration. None were found. Powell advised President Bush against the war and later came to regret his role in it and admitted it publicly. “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” Powell told Barbara Walters on ABC News, acknowledging that his presentation “will always be a part of my record.”

Working the system

Fortunately, Powell contributed much more. He was a pragmatist. As a diplomat, Powell understood how governments work and how governance needed to be in place. 

Powell was a people person. Richard Haass, a friend of more than 40 years who first worked with him at the Pentagon, recalls seeing then Col. Powell make phone calls every morning, something Powell referred to as checking the “trap lines.” Haass explained that Powell was seeking information. 

Information was a currency Powell could use to understand the bigger picture. And when used appropriately could lead to greater understanding between individuals and even government agencies. “Anybody who becomes a senior officer had better have some political instincts or you’re going to get ground up,” Powell told the New York Times. “We are a political nation. It is not a dirty word.”

Powell was proud of being the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black Secretary of State. Quite a leap for the son of immigrants from Jamaica. Yet, as John Meacham noted on Morning Joe, Powell said his race should not matter. What should matter is a commitment to service and the competency to do the job well.

A mentor to many

There is another side of Powell that amplifies his humanity. Powell was a mentor to many young women and men in the military and State Department. Stravridis recalls that when he was named the NATO Commander, the first person he went to see was Powell, who had once held that position. Stavridis told him to remember to do his job and remind himself that he was not Charlemagne. That is, keep humble and understand you can only do so much as an American general in Europe. 

Lloyd Austin, the current Secretary of Defense, said, “I lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor. He always made time for me, and I could always go to him with tough issues. He always had great counsel. We will certainly miss him. I feel as if I have a hole in my heart.”

Colin Powell—soldier-statesman, mentor-leader—left a leadership legacy to remember.

First posted on 10.18.2021

Apologies 101: Make Things Right

You know you made the right decision. 

And the decision was well made.

The problem is the results were not.

So now you’re on the hot seat.

People are clamoring for your head.

What do you do?


Every good apology has three operative elements: acknowledgment, acceptance and amends.

Acknowledge the wrong. First, say you are sorry for what occurred. People may be suffering. Acknowledge the pain and the loss. Make it known you understand their pain. Demonstrate empathy by showing compassion.

Accept the consequences. Shoulder the blame. Make it known that you hold yourself accountable and will work to rectify the situation. In the wake of the failed invasion in the Bay of Pigs, President John Kennedy, just four months in office, said, “Victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.”

Make amends. People are disappointed, frustrated, and maybe even disillusioned. They don’t want speeches; they want actions. Talk about what you and your team will do immediately. Get working on the problems and take corrective measures.

No excuses!

Keep in mind an operative principle of apologies. It’s not about you. It’s about them. A leader who discusses everything he did to avoid the mistake may tell the truth, but those suffering do not want to hear it. Instead, they want to know that the person responsible for the error is focused on making things better.

Good apologies all contain one key element: no finger-pointing. A senior leader often makes an apology, even when she may not be directly responsible. But as the top person, it becomes your job to own the situation. So you don’t point fingers. Instead, you swallow your pride, and you take the heat.

Anyone can make excuses except those in charge. “Never ruin a good apology with an excuse,” said Ben Franklin.  You can provide the backstory, but when you do make it clear that you are not excusing yourself, you are merely giving context. Own the decision and its consequences.

Doing this will make people recognize that you have something we all want: a backbone. By making amends and correcting the situation, you create a path forward for your team, your organization, and maybe your reputation.

Move forward

No leader makes the right calls at the right time. But great leaders make things right when things go wrong. As Winston Churchill once quipped, “Success in life is the ability to move from one mistake to another without losing enthusiasm.” Defeat is not the end unless you let it define you. 

There are, of course, mistakes that require the leader to step down. But, in the grand scheme of things, those occasions are rare. When they involve moral transgression, removal from the position is a good thing. When they include mistakes in judgment, regard them as “teachable moments.”

Apologies are but the first step toward creating a better future. Forget this at your peril.

First posted on SmartBrief on 8.20.2021

How to Remember 2020

No one wants to relive 2020. It was a year of pandemic, racial strife, economic crisis and climate catastrophes. This year, 2021 promises to be better; people are being vaccinated, jobs are returning, and a degree of congregant life is returning. Social injustice remains a scourge, but there is an awakening and renewed need for and action with diversity, equity and inclusion.

Amid this hope, if we close our minds to 2020, we will be doing ourselves a disservice. We experienced a world turned genuinely upside-down. If we shut our minds to what we experienced, we will have missed a great lesson. It is a lesson forged in loss of proximity, jobs and health. We cannot forget, nor should we, what we experienced as a culture and as individuals.

Lessons to remember

And so, we need to grieve. Millions around the world have died. Many millions more have lost jobs. Some even their identities as people who work and contribute. We must commemorate these losses in our memories and keep the memories of loved ones close to our hearts.

We need to be resilient. Good news. We are. We did not endure the suffering of this past year by lying down. We stood tall as possible and continued working when possible, educating our children, and most of all, caring for the sick. We, as a people, answered the call. Our losses have transformed us. We are resilient.

We need to act with empathy. What occurred with disease and hardship was a discovery that viruses do not distinguish between rich and poor, though the latter are more at risk. We re-discovered our humanity, the very fabric that binds us together as humans. Caring for one another is innate.

And we need to celebrate. We have endured a year that was something unprecedented. We survived. We made it. That is no small accomplishment. Our joy in what comes next should not blind us to our losses. Instead, it should remind us of their sacrifice. 

Challenge for leaders

Leaders can serve as beacons of hope. Reminding us of the past but pointing toward a better future. The values we held in January 2020 will be the values that help us create the “new normal.” It will build upon what we have learned and is enriched by the sacrifices we have made.

In the final battle scene of Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), lying mortally wounded, pulls Private Ryan (Matt Damon) close and says, “Earn this.” It was the captain’s last order; make the sacrifice of war worth it in your future life.

Our challenge is the same. And we can earn it with our example. Let us work together to make our future more prosperous, more generous, more compassionate. That would be a fitting tribute to a year of trouble and tribulation. We have endured.

We suffer together. We persist together.

We will emerge, let’s hope, a better people.

But if we are, it will involve personal change.

Each of us is doing what we can.

Adapted from themes of Grace Notes: Leading in an Upside-Down World.

First posted on on 5/28/2021

John Baldoni: Grace Notes Promo