In which ‘sorry’ is the hardest word …

On a lovely summer afternoon about 150 years ago a striking white-haired man stood at the edge of an unremarkable meadow just outside an obscure town in Pennsylvania. What he did next has always struck me as being among the most morally courageous acts I have ever read about.

The town was Gettysburg. The man, Robert E Lee.

Just a few score minutes earlier Lee had launched around 12,500 of his finest troops in an attack across that open farm land, uphill towards the enemy. It was a disaster. Half of the men Lee had ordered forward were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

He chose to meet the survivors as they straggled back to their own lines. ‘It was all my fault,’ he said. No equivocation or blaming higher powers, fate or bad luck.

‘It was all my fault.’

Not a phrase we hear a lot of in our public life. We often have easy apologies for historical acts. But they are safe ground for leaders. Everyone knows whatever is being apologised for is nothing to do with them.

What we get rather more of these days is the perfunctory use of ‘regret’. It’s a non-apology apology. It gives the impression of being sorry without ever having to take responsibility.

‘I regret the job losses …’

‘I regret the hardship this must be causing …’

‘I regret being unable to keep the pledge we made …’

There are other distancing techniques at use too. The third person. The passive tense. All designed to cocoon the speaker from taking any direct responsibility.

‘It’s all my fault.’

Wouldn’t it be refreshing, just for once, for leaders to say: ‘I got that wrong, it was my fault and I’m sorry.’

Would we really think any less of them for taking ownership of the consequences of their actions?

But I will not be holding my breath. ‘Sorry’ remains the least likely word you will hear a modern leader say. It is the hardest word.

About redundantpublicservant

A redundant UK public servant looking for work, sharing his experiences and providing a space for others to do the same.
This entry was posted in bad news, HR departments, people management, Redundancy, rejection letters, saying sorry and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to In which ‘sorry’ is the hardest word …

  1. Kay Phelps says:

    Frankly, if we heard a proper apology from a leader, I imagine we’d think a whole lot more of them.

    PS. I now have the Elton John tune stuck in my head.

  2. Too true! Unfortunately, in these days of litigation, people are scared to apologise. It seems they fear leaving themsleves open to taking a hit. I try not to make mistakes (don’t we all), but when I do, I apologise. No, it’s not easy, but on reflection I feel better for it. I am a human being after all. In fact, people respect me all the more for it.

    What does anyone else think?

    • Dear Julia,

      Thank you for the comment. I do wonder if this is a cultural thing too?

      One of the best bosses I ever worked for shocked me of first acquaintance when he said sorry for a screw-up. That one step completely altered the culture within the team he had just inherited.

      Thanks for visiting the blog,


  3. Mean Mr Mustard says:


    But don’t you remeber? The incompetents behind all this woe and misery did say they were ever so sorry, back in February 2009.

    “The former bosses of the two biggest UK casualties of the banking crisis have apologised “profoundly and unreservedly” for their banks’ failure.

    Former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin told MPs on the Treasury Committee he “could not be more sorry” for what had happened.

    The former bank chiefs also said the bonus culture had contributed to the crisis and needed to be reviewed.

    But Sir Fred said if bankers felt they were not paid enough, they would leave”.

    • Dear Mean Mr Mustard,

      I’ve always believed that one of the important features of saying sorry is to acknowledge error in order to ensure that error is not repeated. I’m not entirely convinced that this is the behaviour we are seeing being modelled by our friends in banking just now.


  4. A former boss of mine told me never to apologise. I spend a lot of my time disregarding their advice. Its an imperfect world and if only we acknowledged that and apologised for screw ups more often I think we’d all feel better. In my current job I was told that if you were not getting things wrong you were not doing your job right – its about taking chances and trying things out. The innovative spur is fast disappearing.

    Robert E Lee is a remarkable figure. Indeed the whole culture of the War between the States is amazing. I cannot read accounts of Appomattox without being struck by the superhuman dignity of the way they behaved at the end of such a slaughter.

    • Dear Roger,

      I am with you on the innovation front.

      I have always been fascinated by the contradictions in Lee. He loathed slavery but felt overwhelmingly compelled to fight in the service of his home state rather than the federal government. The terrible irony is, of course, that if he had commanded the Union Army from the start he may well have crushed the rebellion earlier, saving many thousand lives, preserving more of the heritage he held so dear and even perhaps delaying emancipation. Could Lincoln have beaten victorious General Robet E Lee in the next presidential election?

      I agree with you about Appomattox Court House. Nothing expresses the odds facing Lee at the end as clearly as the fact that Grant was able to immediately provide rations for Lee’s army on its surrender. Just like that.

      That’s Yankee know-how.

      Best wishes


  5. Turning into a bit of a Civil War thing this….. always been my interest since I was a teenager……

    An object lesson in how beliefs can entrench us so much that we forget common humanity and common bonds?

    All the best to you all, on this desperately cold (in more than one way) time of the year.

  6. brightandsmiley says:

    Hear them say ‘sorry’. Admit that they made a mistake! To continue the Elton John theme rather than the American civil war; “And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time…”

  7. Douglas says:

    If you think Lee was against slavery — I’ve got a canyon out West to sell you, it’s call “The Grand”.

    Oh I know all about the letter Lee wrote to his wife — but you don’t. The letter which you presumable think proves Lee hated slavery, is actually one of the strongest defenses not only of slavery its self, but of the torture and pain of slavery.

    First of all, the letter is one Lee copied almost verbatim from a letter by Daniel Webster written a few years prior. It is so astonishing close to the Webster letter, in places, that either Lee committed it to memory, or he had it in front of him when he wrote to his wife.

    I have a sneaky suspcion you didn’t know that. In that letter, Lee is trying to convince his wife that while slavery is painful and cruel — God intended it to be so. And God might take 2000 years to free the slaves, but meanwhile, this pain and sufffering they are incuring (much of it at Lee’s hand – see below) is “necessary for their instruction.”

    The fact that Lee was getting the most polished phrases he could find, to placate his wife, shows this letter was not “off the top of his head”. Still, it is a DEFENSE of slavery. Slaves are better off here than in Africa — but how would Lee know? He had never been to Africa, and neither had any of his slaves. And God ordained slavery, this was all God’s doing.

    Lee, however, was not a devout man, contrary to what you may have heard. This religious language Lee and other slavers would use, was very much like the “Allah is Great” language you hear from radical islamics. These men were raised to defend slavery with the bible — because that defense seemed to work, especially on the women frankly.

    Lee compared slavery to religious liberty in this letter, implying slavery was what our founding fathers based this country on. In a second letter to his wife, Lee tries yet again to pacify her — saying those who are against slavery “are trying to destroy the American Church” — yes, the American CHURCH!!

    So what you have done is take one part of one letter — and entirely misread even that.

    Look what Lee did — really did, not the farsical nonsense you have heard.

    Did you know Lee had run away slave girls tortured –and would scream at them WHILE they were being tortured?

    Did you know Lee kept a “Hunting List”of slaves, mostly slave girls, in his own handwriting, in his account ledgers? He recorded paying six times his normaly bounty for the return of one young girl — age 14 or so — who he then had whipped. He then sold her infant child.

    Lee was obsessed in his account books with the capture and return of the white LOOKING infants, that were born to his mullatto slave girls. You can see one of the slave girls, about 1 year old, in a picture of George Syphus, a very darked skinned slave on Lee’s plantation. This white looking girl was supposedly George’s grandchild. Fat chance.

    So WHILE Lee was writing the letters to his wife defending slavery and the pain of slavery, and calling slavery “The American Church” — Lee was having young girls whipped, and selling light skinned babies.

    I suggest you learn more about what Lee did — then re-read “his” letter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s