How to Apologize When Your Candid Comments Show Up on WikiLeaks (or Somewhere Else You Didn’t Intend)

Posted 11.29.2010

Diplomacyposter A good piece of conventional wisdom for leaders used to be to never do, say or write anything down that you wouldn’t want to read on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.  Times have changed though. As this week’s WikiLeaks release of more than 250,000 U.S. State Department documents shows, there’s a pretty good chance that your recorded thoughts and actions can end up all over the internet in no time flat.

As reported in the New York Times and other major publications, the State Department memos contain some rather embarrassing details of how diplomacy gets done and some very candid assessments of individual world leaders.  For example, according to a summary in the Financial Times, the documents describe French president Sarkozy as having a “thin skinned and authoritarian personal style,” Russian president Medvedev  as “Robin” to Prime Minister Putin’s “Batman,” Afghan President Karzai as “an extremely weak man who does not listen to facts,” Italy’s PM Berlusconi as “feckless and vain,” and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il as a “flabby old chap.”

Since most of those observations could be made firsthand by anyone who follows international news, you sort of have to wonder what the value was in writing them down.  In any case, they were and now the apologizing is underway.  While it’s unlikely that your closeted skeletons will suddenly appear on WikiLeaks (although the probability of someone’s Facebook page or blog is much higher),  you’ve likely faced situations as a leader where your true thoughts inadvertently come out (You’ve probably learned the hard way that the recall button on that e-mail you just sent by “Reply All” doesn’t actually do anything).  In spite of all the lessons you’ve learned, it will probably happen again in the future.  If not that, then you may end up on the receiving end of someone else’s unintended candor.

Here are some suggestions on how to apologize in the first instance and why and how you should accept the apology in the second:

How to Apologize When Your True Thoughts Are Revealed

Own It:  When your embarrassing cat gets out of the bag, you’ve got to own it.  Don’t ignore it or hope it goes away.  Acknowledge what you said or wrote to the offended party.

Say It:  Say how sorry you are for what you did and any hurt or embarrassment you’ve caused.  Face to face is best, video or phone conference is second best, handwritten note is next best (and a nice supplement to one of the first two), e-mail is least preferred.

Recap It:  At the end of your apology, offer some sincere reflections on how much you value the relationship with the other person and why that matters to you.  Recall the successes you’ve had together and express the hope that those can continue in the future.

Ask It:  Ask what you can do to regain the other person’s trust and goodwill.  Don’t expect an immediate answer.  They may need to think it over.

Act on It:   Act in a way that rebuilds trust.  Look for opportunities to publicly and sincerely acknowledge the contributions and leadership of the other person.

Why and How to Accept an Apology When It’s Offered

You’ve Got a History:  If someone knows you well enough to embarrass you publicly, you probably have a history together.  Try to put the offending act in the context of the broader history you have with each other.  There are probably some positive moments in there as well as times when you’ve been the offending party.  Is it worth blowing up the history because of what just happened?

You’ve Got Mutual Interests:  There’s the history and there’s the future.  You’ve built a relationship because you’ve had mutual interests.  You’ll likely continue to have mutual interests.  Get clear with yourself about what those are.  Do what you can to put the episode behind you and get back to the work that needs to be done.

You’re Both Human:  If you’re like most human beings, you’ve said or written some pretty snarky things about other people.  Maybe you’ve just been lucky and they haven’t been exposed for broader consumption.  Human beings make mistakes and even occasionally learn from them.  Help the process along by accepting the apology.

What about you?  Any scary stories about unintended candor that you want to share?  If you were the offending leader,  what did you do to set things right?  If you were on the receiving end, what worked?  What didn’t work?  What did you do to get yourself through it?