The Power of An Unnatural Apology

What you say after you make a mistake will either begin the healing or double the damage. Tweet This There is great power in an honest, full apology.Customer service experts know that a complaint is actually a golden opportunity to create a raving fan if you handle it well. Surgeons are taught that the best way to avoid a malpractice lawsuit is actually to give a heartfelt apology to the family, not avoid and excuse. Marriage counselors help couple reverse years of pain by apologizing instead of defending.

sorry comic

In just about every field of human interaction, a good apology has been proven to be a game changer. But in all those fields, it’s also revealed that our default state is not to apologize well. It’s to explain why it wasn’t really entirely our fault. It’s to protect and defend, rather than humble ourselves.

Many of us have never seen someone offer a full apology, which includes:

1) Name the behavior you’re sorry for. Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Not even close to enough. What exactly did you do (or fail to do) that was wrong? Own it and name it.

2) Acknowledge how it made them feel. This is not permission to say, “I’m sorry you felt hurt” and avoid naming what you did wrong. That’s a false apology. This is a separate sentence after you named what you did wrong. Once the mistake is identified, say something like, “I can see that it hurt you” or “I realize this made you feel ignored.”

3) Say what you’ll do differently from now on. Offer a plan on how you’ll make sure this won’t happen again. Or at least a specific commitment that the next time you’re in this situation, you’ll do the opposite. (Of course, this means you need to follow through what that or this whole apology will be invalidated.)

4) Don’t make a single excuse or explain why you weren’t really wrong. This might be the hardest part of the apology. At least, it is for me. No defending, explaining, or justifying why you did what you did. Explaining should be handled in a separate conversation. And don’t start that “separate conversation” right after the apology. If you truly do need to explain, you’ll have to come back later, probably another day, and have that conversation.

But let’s be honest, it usually isn’t necessary to explain. We just want to feel justified so we can avoid the pain of being wrong. When we make a mistake, the guilt and loss felt in that moment is intense. Our impulse is to move away from that as fast as possible. So I challenge to have the strength of character to resist your impulse and make a full apology. Parents, teach your kids to apologize well. Leaders, model for your people a true apology. And spouses, break the cycle of argument with a real apology. Have the courage to sit in that pain for a little bit and make a true, full apology. It will make a bigger difference than you might realize. It could change the future path of your whole relationship.

This post is my answer to a discussion question from Chapter Four Debrief of How To Fail As A Leader.

photo credit: sorry via photopin (license)

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Scott WozniakThe Power of An Unnatural Apology

What Do You Do If You Work For A Bad Boss?

What do you do when your boss is bad leader? In How To Fail As A Leader, one of the main characters has real problems with the vision and direction of his boss. Sadly, this is not a fictional problem. I spoke this week with a friend who is a similar situation. Here’s what I said:

First, ask yourself if you really are supposed to stay with that leader. Jimmy Collins (former President of Chick-fil-A) taught me that it is our responsibility to choose our bosses well. Tweet This It’s normal to feel stuck. But you have more options than you probably realize. It might take some time to make a transition happen, but you can find a better job with a better boss.

an unwitting victim screaming man

But what if you believe you’re supposed to stay with that leader? My friend believed God was calling him to stay for at least a while longer.

Then ask the leader how they would like to receive feedback. Before you give challenging feedback, ask them what the best way would be to offer input to them—and on what topics they’re willing to listen. Pre-negotiate how to have that conversation. At best, this opens the door for you to come back later with specifics in the way they want. At worst, you’ll find out they aren’t open to challenges before you stick your foot in your mouth.

But what if—as in my friend’s case—they aren’t open to feedback?

Is time to establish boundaries to protect yourself. Know what you need to stay healthy and protect that. You might need boundaries around how much time you’ll work. Or you might need to limit how often you’ll talk about how bad your boss is with your colleagues and friends. Stirring up frustration after you’ve decided to live with only makes it harder. You might even need to protect yourself from your own passion for excellence and be willing to do what the boss says even when you don’t agree. Choosing to stay means choosing to follow that leader even when you disagree.

If you can’t live with these limits, then I refer you back to the first question. Why are you staying? If the only reason is because you can’t see a way out, then you can decide to leave and give yourself the freedom to start figuring out a way to do that well. There are always options, if you’re willing to be both creative and persistent. And be sure to interview your next boss thoroughly. The second time around with the same type of bad leader you won’t learn as much—and it hurts just as bad.

Lastly, if this is happening to you, do not waste this opportunity. I learned so much from my bad leaders. Hopefully I learned enough that I’m not “teaching” my staff these lessons, too. 🙂 It was painful and exhausting and I don’t recommend staying very long. But while you’re there, squeeze as much learning as you can from it. Don’t let your pain go to waste. Tweet This You might even want to journal during this season, both to help you process your pain and to crystalize the insights.

This post is my answer to a discussion question from Chapter Four Debrief of How To Fail As A Leader.

photo credit: an unwitting victim…bwahahhahahaa via photopin (license)

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Scott WozniakWhat Do You Do If You Work For A Bad Boss?

How to Make Memories of Moments

A good friend of mine, Lori, went back to college and just recently graduated. She planned to skip the graduation. After all, as an adult with a husband and two kids wouldn’t it just be selfish to make them do all that—and it’s just a formality, right? But at the last minute, she realized getting her diploma in the mail dishonored the significance of this accomplishment in her life. She also talked about the chance to reinforce important messages to her kids about never quitting and dreaming big. So they’re traveling a few hours to the university campus, staying in a bed and breakfast, and making a full day of the graduation experience. Lori decided to engage in ceremony to enrich her and her family’s life.


In my last post, I shared how I also learned to appreciate the influence potential of ceremonies. Read that if you’re not convinced. This post is for my friend, and everyone like her, wanting to know how to enhance the ceremonies of our lives.

Create a Special Place: The most typical example is a stage, or even just forming a circle of people. But you could also go to a special location, like engagement proposals on the mountaintops and beaches, or leaders going offsite for the retreat or award ceremony. Where you do an activity can make the difference between mundane and memorable. Tweet This

Idea for Lori: in addition to the graduation ceremony, plan a special meal for the family to have their own ceremony.

Tell The Story: Whatever you are honoring has a story—and humans remember stories. Here are some tips for telling the story. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Share…

  • the previous situation, especially the challenge or problem in it
  • the choice made by those being honored
  • the price paid (effort, struggle, etc)
  • the result now

Idea for Lori: Over dinner, have your husband tell this story to commemorate what you’ve done and reinforce these lessons with your kids

Gift a special object: From biblical times to modern university, people have used special objects to help a ceremony live on in our memories. From stacking twelve stones to diplomas to an employees picture on the wall, something tangible extends the value of a ceremony into the rest of our lives.

Idea for Lori: Lori will get a diploma from the school. But her husband and kids (hint, hint) could get her something special to give to her during the dinner. 

Close with a special statement: Weddings close with, “I now pronounce you…” Presidential Inaugurations close with a formal oath. If you create something special you can say at the end, something that connects with the message of the ceremony, it will take the entire moment to the next level.

Idea for Lori: Close the special meal with the family making a promise to each other or praying a special prayer together.

This is not an exhaustive list. In fact, I’d love to hear more ideas from you on how to make ceremonies more meaningful and memorable. But hopefully this will get you started as you evaluate and enhance the ceremonies in your life.

photo credit: 1H7A3212 via photopin (license)

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Scott WozniakHow to Make Memories of Moments

Why Bother With Ceremonies?

My childhood included institutions rich with ceremonies, from high church liturgy to high class educational institutions to high brow theater. And I decided I didn’t like ceremonies. My energy level certainly didn’t help me sit through formal events (ADD would be putting it mildly). So when I was a new leader I tried to engage in as little ceremony as possible, proud of my enlightened, humble posture. And my leadership suffered for it.

As I led and learned in a variety of settings I realized that it wasn’t ceremonies I disliked, it was empty ceremonies. The intensity of the ceremony should match the importance of what is honored. Tweet This When someone drones on and on about a routine event, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. But when something truly significant goes down, a serious ceremony is not just helpful, it’s needed. Weddings and funerals would be cheapened without a full ceremony.

Ceremonies are an attempt to highlight something as worthy of special attention. And strategically planning for these moments can enhance almost every area of our lives. For example, my parents added a ceremony to the birthday parties of my childhood (though we didn’t call it a ceremony). Typically around present opening time (a common ceremonial event at birthday parties) all the guests were asked to share what they liked about the birthday boy or girl. We took turns speaking as the rest of the room listened. They could have just asked everyone to share something in private during the party. But having the entire room sit and listen as others shared, one by one, made it a much more special moment. And then my father always closed that “ceremony” by praying a blessing over the birthday child, laying hands on top of their head. That was anything but an empty ritual for me and my siblings.

It’s common for leaders to reward a team that has hit a big goal with a “share in private” approach. But spending five minutes to gather the rest of the staff and conduct a small ceremony would honor that team and inspire the rest of the organization.

proposal surprise

Romance is in large part built through ceremonies. Getting down on one knee and opening a ring box transforms a simple question into a major moment. If you’re looking to heat up a relationship, consider increasing the intensity and frequency of your ceremonies together—putting on special clothes, going to special places, and saying special things.

What is most important to you? What would you like to draw special attention to? Does the intensity of your ceremonies match the importance of that area in your life? If not, look for ways to create lasting memories and strong values through more and better ceremonies.

This post is an answer to a discussion question in the book, How to Fail as a Leader. For more info about that book, go to

photo credit: Surprise proposal via photopin (license)

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Scott WozniakWhy Bother With Ceremonies?

Leaders and Style: Follow the Rules or Follow Your Heart?

One of the characters in my book, Addoc, loses some trust with his followers because of his clothing choices. In his case, he violated their military uniform. His dismissal of official rules creates an unnecessary hurdle for his followers as they get to know him.

But what about those of us not in the military? How do we choose the most appropriate attire? Do we simply follow the crowd and wear what everyone else is wearing to be safe? Or do we follow popular advice to ignore others and do whatever feels good?


I spent years of my life avoiding style decisions. Jeans and a shirt was my outfit almost every day. Casual days I wore t-shirts and fancy days I wore button up shirts. If I was teaching I would go so far as to wear dress shoes instead of sneakers. But with the help of two mentors, I came to realize that clothing communicates. And anything that communicates to others is an influence tool. And leaders cannot ignore an influence tool without paying a price.

So, how to choose what to wear? My current approach is to neither follow the crowd or ignore the crowd. First, learn how to follow the rules. Only then will you know which ones to break. Tweet This

Before deciding what you should wear, I recommend learning what the norms of your peers are. For some people, this is automatic and instinctive. You’re sensitive to what everyone else in your setting (your office, school, church, etc) is wearing. I had to put real effort into learning this. But until you have a solid grasp on what’s normal, you can’t make intelligent choices about what to wear.

With this information in hand, you can select how you will be different from the crowd. It’s the deviations from the norm that speak the loudest. This might result in you wearing radically different clothing from the norm, if that’s the message you want to send. Go for it. But there’s a world of difference between random differences and thoughtfully choosing. It’s like first learning to speak a language properly before choosing which words to use to represent yourself. The more fully you understand proper grammar the more powerfully you can communicate what you want. You don’t have to use proper grammar when crafting your message, but if you don’t know the norms you can’t know how create the right effect at the right time.

But there’s one more crucial piece. You need to know exactly what impression you want to make. If you don’t know the message you want to send, you don’t know what to wear. Steve Jobs took his clothing seriously and eventually created his own “uniform”—buying dozens of the exact same black turtleneck shirt and jeans and wearing them almost every single day. He knew the message he wanted to send.

If at this point, some part of you is violently rebelling at the thought of doing anything other than what you prefer, then let me remind you: If you’re not trying to become a better influencer, then don’t worry about this at all. Just pick what looks cool or feels comfy and move on. But if you want to be an influencer, then you have to face the hard truth: You influence best by serving others, not fulfilling your own desires. Tweet This

photo credit: FASHION : BV LOOKBOOK #105 + SNAZZY via photopin (license)

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Scott WozniakLeaders and Style: Follow the Rules or Follow Your Heart?

How You Ask Is At Least As Important As What You Ask

If you want great conversations, ask great questions. Tweet This The purpose of a conversation is a two-way exchange. If you ask the right things in the wrong way, you can shut down the flow of ideas. There’s a lot to learn about mastering question-asking, but to start with the basics, there are three types of questions: Open, Closed, and False Questions.

Open questions cannot logically be answered with a “yes” or “no” response. EXAMPLE: “What is your favorite color?”

Closed questions require a “yes” or “no” response. EXAMPLE: “Is blue your favorite color?”

False questions offer advice in the form of a question. Technically they are questions, but they function like declarations. They don’t invite others to add to the conversation. They propose a solution for the other person to adopt. EXAMPLE: “Don’t you think that blue is the best color?”

Open questions invite exploration and conversation. Our brains naturally want to answer the question, so we imagine possible responses. And the conversation that comes out of those questions feels like two people standing side by side, exploring an idea together.

  • “What options do you have now?”
  • “Who else could help with this?”
  • “How will you know when you’ve been successful?”

On the other hand, closed questions initiate evaluation and critique. They spark others to play a game of True or False, switching on the critical evaluation modes of their brains.

  • “Did you do what I asked?”
  • “Is this method working?”
  • “Do you really want to do that?”

And false questions are the most dangerous of all. Unsolicited advice is received as judgment. Tweet This Ironically, when it’s accurate advice it feels even worse. There’s no quicker way to shut down a conversation than shoving solutions into it. Tweet This

Annoyed distracted kid

For any parents who are struggling to get your kids to talk to you, this could be part of the problem. You might have enabled your teenager to respond with short, yes or no answers, closing off the conversation. Of course, the most clever question in the world won’t magically make teenagers into conversational adults. But I spent several years working with teenagers for a living and I can promise that how you ask does make a difference, even to surly sixteen year olds.

Leaders have to be even more careful with this, because your position of authority makes others more cautious about disagreeing with you. Your solutions end the conversation quickly—that’s what we’ll do. Your closed questions shift the conversation to being evaluated by your boss—they better get the right answer. Hundreds of times I’ve seen leaders shut down a group exploration of what to do by blurting out the solution that they like. So many great ideas have been killed that way.

At the end of each chapter in my forthcoming book, I’ve got a set of discussion questions for individuals or small groups can use to explore the ideas further. Engaging with these open questions could be more powerful than any of the teaching in the book. In fact, I believe this so much that in early drafts of the book, I didn’t have any teaching debriefs at all—I just asked questions at the end of each story chapter.

It might feel awkward at first, but if you can retrain yourself to ask more open questions you will find the quality of all your conversations increase. And the quality of your conversations determines the quality of your relationships.

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Scott WozniakHow You Ask Is At Least As Important As What You Ask

The Unique Power of Good Discussions

Last night, I had a great phone call with my personal leadership coach. Yes, everyone benefits from coaching, even leadership coaches. Tweet This It’s not just about learning from someone who knows more in a field than you. Teachers are valuable, too. But great leadership coaching helps differently than great teaching. Coaching is more about asking the right questions and creating a safe place to discuss things at a deeper level.

Discussion at TED salon

And a good discussion is more valuable than most people realize. Humans thrive when interacting with each other. We grow through deep discussions in ways no other situation can stimulate. Tweet This

I’m a leadership coach. I even train others to be leadership coaches. You might think I already know the answers—or at least the questions. But in discussion with my coach I experienced a mini-breakthrough last night, realizing for the last few weeks I’ve been coping with a stressful situation the wrong way.

This isn’t an introvert or extrovert things. This is how Jesus developed his disciples. He taught the crowds and he coached his disciples. This is why one of the central design principles of all my leadership workshops is sparking meaningful discussions between the participants. Those discussion sessions are often the highlight of the workshop.

And this is why my new leadership book, How to Fail as a Leader, includes a discussion guide at the end of each chapter. Because while I hope many people read the book, I’m even more hopeful that they will discuss the book with each other. Because a good discussion is more valuable than most people realize. Tweet This

Do you want to accelerate your growth? Find a good discussion partner. One way is to hire a personal coach. I provide that for others and work with one myself. But you can also create a lot of the same dynamic talking with a good friend.

Who do you discuss the deep things in your life with? What would it look like to do that more often?

photo credit: TEDxSKE salon: 10.03.16 via photopin (license)

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Scott WozniakThe Unique Power of Good Discussions

3 Ways Storytelling Will Enhance Your Leadership 

Stories are how humans make sense of their lives. “She chose this, which caused that, which caused him to choose this…” Since the dawn of time, we have shaped our cultures around stories. Every strong organization—whether a nation, a company or a family—has a founding story. Many have described political races as a contest between stories. Each of the religions of the world proposes a story to explain reality (including atheism).

stage and camera

I believe this so much that I wrote my book, How To Fail as a Leader, as a fable. The point of the book is to help leaders wrestle with the tension between the big picture and the details, the long-term and the short-term. It would have been much easier to write the ideas down by themselves. But I believed that a story would make these ideas come to life. So I wrote a meaningful story with rich characters and real surprises (not just a thin, weak story like many fable have—including my first book) and it took the book to a whole new level.

Above all else, leaders must make sense of the complex forces inside and outside of their organizations. Marcus Buckingham says that if leaders do only one thing, it’s provide clarity. Every leader, therefore, must be a storyteller. If you cannot tell a story that others connect to, they will not follow you. Tweet This Specifically, stories help leaders…

1) Stories broaden and deepen a leaders wisdom, asking them to fuse hard and soft data into a meaningful whole.
2) Stories guide you through the implementation of a strategy the way a great author guides the reader through a novel.
1) Stories help you to speak in a human voice that creates empathy between employer and employee, building engagement in the work.
2) Stories inspire teamwork within and across departments.
3) Stories enhance the flow of communication up, down and across the organization’s pyramid of power.
1) Stories create positive brand awareness in the public’s mind.
2) Stories can literally create new markets and new movements.
3) Stories move people to action.

What’s story do you use to explain the world? What story explains why your company needs to exist? What story is defining your family right now?

Choose your stories wisely. Tweet This




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Scott Wozniak3 Ways Storytelling Will Enhance Your Leadership 

What Is Life Giving To You And What Is Merely Numbing?

A huge question was asked this past weekend at a dinner party. One of my good friends is exhausted from wrestling with multiple, lingering health issues in his family. Another friend asked him how he copes with the stress and frustration. He said that some of what he did was fun in the moment, but really wasn’t life giving. He specifically said was that what he was doing was merely numbing him from the difficulty of his life.

Happy Baby smaller

This all reminded me of another good friend, who just two days before this dinner, co-taught a workshop with me. He warned those leaders of the danger of the quick fix: the easy solution that didn’t actually solve the problem, but shifted the burden of the problem to someone else—creating another problem in the process.

Back at the dinner party, another friend asked the question: “So, instead of that numbing stuff, what could you do that would be life giving to you?”

Everyone at the table went silent for a moment. It was a big question and it invited a response from all of us. And we didn’t all have easy answers.

This might sound overly simplistic, but my goal is to figure out how to do more of what is life giving and do less of the other things. What’s hard knowing what is truly life giving—and what is merely numbing.

What are those people, places, and/or activities that fill your soul with deep gladness and sweet satisfaction? Don’t settle for merely fun. And don’t give the generic answers, like family or vacation. The more specific the better. My friend, in our discussion, realized that it wasn’t just time with friends that was his most life giving. He loved introducing great friends to each other—that group dinners with friends were even better. What is life giving can be very different from person to person, when you get specific enough.

Leaders, how full are the hearts of your people? Is their day-to-day work on their list of what’s life giving to them? If not, you’re probably not going to get remarkable results. And beware of trying to give life to your people through the methods that fill you. One of the keys to great leadership is learning the unique wiring of each of your people. We lead individuals, each wildly different, none of them “normal”.

Whatever it is, how could you do more life giving things in the next month? Next week?

And maybe the biggest question of all: What “numbing” activities are keeping you from doing more of the really life giving stuff? Tweet This How could you do less of those?

I don’t expect that I can solve this in a week or a month—or even a year. But year after year, I want to be able to say that I’m doing more life giving things and less of anything else.

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Scott WozniakWhat Is Life Giving To You And What Is Merely Numbing?

How to Protect Yourself From Toxic Relationships

My last post mentioned how crucial it is to keep contaminants out of our “fuel tanks”. I was asked, “How do you do that if the problem is a person, especially one hard to keep out like family?”

Book Cover - Boundaries

My answer: Read the book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. This book has sold over 2 million copies for a reason. Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend are psychiatrists with a Christian worldview. So get ready for a mix of practical psychology (e.g. the family you grew up in is key to understanding your current boundaries) and scripture (e.g. Galatians 6 on the law of sowing and reaping). Bottom line: this book helps you get clear on what you are responsible for and what you are not responsible for, and how to talk to others about honoring each others’ boundaries.

For example, speaking only what edifies others is my responsibility (Ephesians 4.29). How someone else feels about what I say is their responsibility. Again, their feelings are not my responsibility. And many, many of us have been taught that it is our responsibility to keep the other person happy—or that it’s their fault if I feel bad. It’s not. It’s my job to manage my own emotions.

Another example is the danger of trying to help our kids (especially older kids) by shielding them from the bad consequences of bad decisions. By taking on too much of the responsibility for fixing their problems we rob them of the ability to take responsibility for their own life. We teach them that they can do what they want and others will handle the fallout.

Leaders not only need to manage their personal boundaries, but the organization’s boundaries. Some customer requests you have to say no to, even if there’s money to be made doing it. That’s not what your company has decided to be about. And healthy organizational boundaries won’t happen if the senior leader makes all the decisions. The boss can’t be directly responsible for it all and have fully empowered staff.

This book brings clarity to one of the most confusing aspects of life. I highly recommend this book. It’s on my short list of best books of all time.

Amazon link: Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life

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Scott WozniakHow to Protect Yourself From Toxic Relationships