Leadership Matters: The Art of the Apology

SEATTLE (TheStreet) -- Last week, Amazon ( AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos took a publicity hit when he removed illegal copies of George Orwell's books not only from the Kindle Web site but from the electronic lockers of Kindle owners everywhere.

The irony of this Orwellian decision was not lost on many as they questioned who owned the work once it was bought and downloaded and whether or not Bezos could authorize such an action on the part of Amazon. (I'm actually not sure who was really reading 1984 at the time, but boy did they get ticked!)

In one of those great moments of reputation saving, Bezos posted the following note on the Kindle community blog:

"This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our 'solution' to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission. With deep apology to our customers, Jeff Bezos."

Of course this was exactly the right thing to do, which means Bezos is a master at a relatively newly discovered leadership characteristic -- the humble apology. He was joined recently by another good apologizer, Microsoft ( MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer after sending the gaming community into fits when he reportedly implied that a new Xbox360 was in the works for 2010: "I confused the issue with my poorly chosen words. There is no news in my comments. Things are as reported after E3. Sorry."

Some, on the other hand, suffer from the inability to muster a good "I'm sorry." For example, Rick Waggoner's apology to Congress during his second Whitehouse trip went like this, "GM has made mistakes in the past." Ummm, yup. That would be about right. That's more a statement of a fact than a real apology. .

Southwest ( LUVl) CEO Gary Kelly also failed to gain a lot of sympathy when he apologized for Southwest's maintenance, when he said, "I am not satisfied we are as compliant (with maintenance requirements) or as safe as we could be." said Kelly. Note to Gary Kelly: When it has to do with safety and maintenance, we're looking for a bit more than "not satisfied."

And then there are the addicts like South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford who apparently feels, if he continues to apology often enough, people will finally get sick enough of hearing about his wayward ways.

There are some differences between a strong humble apology and a weak legal-and-"PR-told-me-to-say-this" apology. They are:

First- Person Ownership: It is not possible to apologize for something about which you do not take accountability. The first rule of apology is to use the personal pronoun. If you can't actually say the words, "I am sorry" about the topic yet, we're going to have a hard time believing you are talking about you.

Timely Apology: When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for the privacy fiasco around the Facebook "Beacon" advertising program, he said the right things and took first-person ownership. The problem is, he did it weeks after the problem was identified. It's tough to believe you actually understand why you're apologizing if it takes too long to hear from you.

Making amends: If you really believe that you wronged me, my next question is, what will you do to make it right? Some CEOs simply believe acknowledging the issue is enough. Others go much further.

When Best Buy ( BBY)CEO Brad Anderson realized that Blu-Ray won the DVD wars, he sent $50 gift cards to customers who had purchased HD-DVD consoles and attachments prior to discontinuing the format. This is a pretty good deal considering you kept the merchandise and received the gift card. Nothing says "I'm sorry" like money.

These are not the only qualities of a good apology, but they do create the sense of authenticity that is needed for an apology to be useful.

It is better to avoid any mention of an apology if you truly do not believe an apology is necessary. If a mistake has been made, by you or your organization, it is best to understand the point of view of the customer or employee and step out with a statement before you are cornered to do so. While many may still not believe you, many will. And through contrition, you can set the stage to recover with your reputation intact.

-- Reported by Todd Thomas in Troy, Mich..

Leadership Development Specialist, L. Todd Thomas ("Dr. Todd") PhD, M.S, M.A, is Founder of IMPACT Consulting and Development . Dr. Todd holds a PhD in Human Communication, Masters in Educational Psychology and a Masters in Interpersonal Communication. He was a professor at North Carolina State University and Indiana University before leaving for the corporate world. He led Organizational Learning at Rockwell Avionics and was the executive responsible for Organizational and Executive Development at Daimler Financial Services for 10 years. Dr. Todd has coached and consulted with over 3000 leaders from 40 different countries spanning 4 continents. He is a speaker, seminar leader and the author of "Leading in a Flat World: How Good Leaders Become Greatly Valued." Other titles include "Life Lessons for Leaders" and "Stop Wasting Your Time: Creating High-IMPACT Meetings" as well as the "Leadership Integrity Quotient(tm)" leadership assessment.

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