The song, “If I Could Turn Back Time” written by Diane Warren and performed by recording artist, Cher, laments our inability to completely erase and undo harm caused to another:

“If I could turn back time
If I could find a way I'd take back those words that hurt you and you'd stay.

I don't know why I did the things I did. I don't know why I said the things I said.
Pride's like a knife it can cut deep inside.
Words are like weapons they wound sometimes.

I didn't really mean to hurt you, I didn't wanna see you go…”

Leaders, like every other human, occasionally cause harm to others, be it via a mean or inconsiderate comment, personal betrayal, inappropriate use of position power, forgetfulness, selfish behavior, or some other action. More often than not, when it happens, we are aware of it, but choose to minimize or not to clean up the mess we just made, perhaps out of arrogance, pride, or ignorance (as in not knowing how best to remedy it).

One such episode permanently seared in my own memory involves a senior exec who chose to chew me out via speakerphone while two peers, one of my direct reports, and a contractor sat in his office listening to the ‘conversation’. The ONLY reason for doing that with an audience, let alone that particular audience, was to embarrass and humiliate. He got that, and more. Like the injured friend or lover in Cher’s song, I quit him immediately, and then left the job on my terms and timetable. And we wonder where disengagement comes from?

Simply put, once spoken, words can’t be put back in the mouth. Many deeds cannot be undone. But what we can, and must do is take responsibility for our messes and clean them up. Some of us seem content to roll thru life without regard for the damage caused by our wake. That damage accrues to our reputation which, at the end of the day, is all any of us has.

Following is some of the best advice I’ve gotten on this topic, most of it from the good example of others (thanks, Mom):

When you make a mess…

  1. Own it – sooner, not later. Don’t wait to be force-fed the facts or blame.
  2. Offer a real apology, not one of those wimpy, qualified (“I’m sorry if anyone was offended”) versions. Do it in person. Do it once, and mean it.
  3. To the best of your ability, make it right - make the person whole.
  4. As long as you’re paying the price for your mistake, learn from it and move on, a better person.