Are you a “sorry” leader?

Years ago the question, “What separates the men from the boys?” irritated me. It typically preceded an inane comparative on which of two male adults was more macho than the next guy, but today I find myself saying, “Here’s a great example of what it means to be a grown up, to be a man.”

2014 was the year of the sports man’s apology. Some of these apologies were a lot more sincere than others. Earlier this year Landon Donovan, the face of U.S. soccer and all-time leading scorer was cut from the World Cup. He was none too happy about it, and actually rooted against the U.S. team in their first game against Azerbaijan. And then he grew up. Disgusted with his own self-absorbed attitude he re-emerged with grace. He joined ESPN as a pre-game and post-game analyst, filmed a commercial poking fun at his own World Cup absence, and returned to play for L.A.’s Galaxy professional soccer team, becoming Major League Soccer’s all time leading scorer just after having been left off the World Cup roster. How did he do it? By letting go of his ego. Donovan realized it would not be life events that would define him, but by his reactions to these events. His apology and subsequent actions have earned him a tremendous amount of respect the world over. Millions of fans related to his initial feelings of rejection, disappointment and hurt, because they felt the same way. They were stunned by his World Cup absence. But they were then inspired even more by his maturity when he revealed these feelings, apologized for his bitterness, donned a fuzzy bathrobe and sang softly about not traveling to Brazil.

Two months later ESPN anchor Stephen A. Smith while providing commentary on the awful Ray Rice incident encouraged women to not “provoke” guys into domestic violence. Uh-oh. Yes, having been raised with sisters I’m sure he got an earful. He apologized. Addressing the camera directly, Smith reached out sincerely and believably to say, “I was wrong. No excuses.” There was no, Let me explain. No, I was misunderstood. He clearly and succinctly owned his egregious misstep.

Compare these two gentleman’s responses with a few less sincere apologies, such as Don Sterling’s deplorable and offensive non-apology or Ray Rice’s inarticulate apology to first the team’s owner Steve Bisciotti and then to his team’s manager Ozzie Newsome. In his first public statement Ray never did apologize to his wife, he just apologized for “the situation.”

Growing up means goofing up along the way. Every one of us has made mistakes. It’s how one responds that truly separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. Taking responsibility, apologizing sincerely to those we have hurt, and moving forward with wiser discernment are hallmarks of being an adult. It’s okay to miss-step, it’s definitely not okay to side-step the responsibility of having done so.

When it’s time to “Man Up” or “Woman Up” and sincerely apologize, will you just be a “sorry” representation of leadership, or will you be genuinely contrite? Taking responsibility for your mistakes and expressing your sincere focus on future better behaviors truly separates the men from the boys.

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