Doubling Down: Why is it so hard for Leaders to say I’m sorry?

Written by Dr Ope Lori

One of the major talking points in last month’s news, was the controversy, surrounding MP Lee Anderson, the Conservative whip from Ashfield who was suspended from his post, following racist, anti-muslim and Islamophobic comments made towards Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London. Whilst what he said in our opinion was racist, anti-muslim and Islamophobic, what this article puts into the spotlight, is the inability for leaders, now privy to such comments failing to recognise them as such and to offer an apology.

Why give an apology you might ask? Why was it so hard for leaders to call out his comments for what they were? Further, why was it so difficult for them to say sorry? Until now, despite multiple questions to top Conservative MPs, including the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, no apology has been issued, either by Anderson, or by Rishi, the head of the party and indeed our nation.

Whilst this case emerges from the political arena, it is not dissimilar to navigating workplace contexts, where senior figures or CEO’s speaking on behalf of their organisation, fail to recognise wrongdoing and offer apologies. As we will see from the BBC interview between Laura Kuenssberg and Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, aired on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, the interaction gives us a blueprint for the dos and don’ts of how leaders should handle these situations, especially in order for them to build back trust and avoid further alienating their teams. It will look at good leadership behaviours and set the context for strategies that can be used when issuing an apology, for managers or anyone with leadership responsibilities. Even if you’re not in either of these categories, there is still the benefit of knowing how such messages would be received, especially by those on the other side of hearing the apology, for that is something that shouldn’t be ignored.

To start, let us go over what happened in the interview. Going straight for the jugular, Kuenssberg asks Dowden whether he agreed the comments made by Lee Anderson were racist, anti-muslim and Islamophobic? These were the terms referenced by Dr Halima Begum, the chief executive of ActionAid UK, when giving her opinion over the incident. Dowden, refraining from answering the question with a yes or no, goes on to say that it was right for the prime minister to have taken action, following Anderson refusing to offer an apology.

Dowden is then shown a clip of the comments made by Anderson. Without going into detail with what was said, the reasons why I agree that the comments are racist, anti-muslim and Islamophobic, are because, firstly, it lumps Sadiq Khan in with terrorists, simply because he is Muslim. The comment reinforces racist tropes on Muslim identities. Secondly, the comments reinforce who is classed as British and others who are not, even though Khan himself was born and raised in South London. His comments echo the words of the former US President Donald Trump, when at a press conference in 2020, at the height of Covid-19, made an offensive anti-Asian comment to an Asian-American White House correspondent. 

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