When a woman assumes a leadership role, she will often begin her first meeting with an apology.[1] Perhaps she is apologising for the fact that she is now the head of the family business. Perhaps she is apologising to soften the transition related to her succession. She may even be apologising to put everyone at ease during this shift in power from a male to a female director.

But could there be more to the apology?

Family businesses do not exist in a fishbowl. The conversation around women and power is happening across many industries and nations. Why, then, do some women feel that an apology is necessary? Is it a form of their socialisation to nurture others? Or is there a bit of survival at play?

When it comes to apologies, there are so many layers and possible meanings behind them, and it’s important to understand those meanings.

Polite conversation

We all want to be liked, and we all want to belong. Adding an apology at the beginning of a meeting, a presentation or a negotiation can be a way to present yourself with humility or good manners. It may even serve to state one’s position that there is no intention to compete, outwit or get the better of the other party. In today’s landscape, women are often careful not to offend anyone for concern of potential backlash. In the past, women have accepted the role of being a “people pleaser”; that tendency might have carried over into today’s society in the form of an apology.


When a woman walks into the boardroom as the new face of the business, there are a number of questions to consider. How does her new leadership position impact the established pecking order? If she begins the meeting with an apology, will it include nuances of control or change management? Can she earn the respect of her associates and the industry if she does not encompass the traits of a natural leader from the start? How can she remain confident and make her voice heard if the men of the company listen to the opinions of other men before they listen to that of a woman? How can she enhance her character to create trust amongst the employees? As a new leader of the company, she will influence the culture of her business, as well as the industry itself. However, she will also have to unpack baggage left behind by past leaders.


Humans, though complex creatures, are still animals in how we think and react. If there is any sign of weakness or incompetence, will this new leader be encouraged to develop? Or will she be cut down quickly? Who decides the course towards this new leader, and how is that response decided? Generally speaking, society has always expected women to be demure, supportive and helpful. However, we are transitioning away from a patriarchal society and toward one that is more inclusive, where abuses of power are being exposed on all levels. With change comes opportunity, and this has led to a revolution of sorts within the business world. However, the question remains: can this new leader rise to the occasion? Or will she be stuck with the belief that she doesn’t deserve her new position?


Power dynamics are real. If a female leader can obtain her associates’ cooperation, the unit will be more cohesive. There will be more trust between business members, and this trust will expand beyond the boardroom like a ripple effect in a pond. The main question is, can this new leader wield her power using her skill sets? Will she have the maturity and honesty needed to manage multiple complex relationships? Due to biases and prejudices, is she really invited to sit at the table? Despite rightful succession, some people still may not want her there. This form of rejection may drive her ego, and she will be pushed to perform better and stay on top of everything. When that happens, she’ll find herself embodying strength, brilliance and a variety of other attributes to define a new character to the narrative and push herself to the forefront.


Every day, we are conditioned with images and messages about who should play what role. When a female leader apologises, she may be doing so to highlight her colleagues’ preconditioned beliefs, as well as to set the stage for herself and define her new role. When we take the time to reflect on our beliefs, we may discover that we have accepted group think rather than forming our own thoughts. Outside views can become deeply ingrained in our subconscious, and it’s up to each of us to decide what we allow into our environment and minds.

When a woman accepts a leadership position, she may be judged for spending too much time working on the business and not enough time with her family. In addition, she may also be criticised for walking the path of a pioneer.

There are times when an apology is necessary. However, apologising too often can also be a negative communication habit that may hinder her leadership role. The good news is that there are many solutions to avoid apologising, which include awareness, empathy and responsibility during the succession transfer.

Guilt is a strong driving factor, yet female leaders can decide to stand tall and release this feeling. Through intelligence and strategy, women can build a strong inner core. This will reflect outwards into her company as she builds a cohesive unit and changes the narrative – thus, providing inspiration for all.

[1] https://www.livescience.com/8698-study-reveals-women-apologize.html


Angelina Carleton
Image courtesy of Angelina Carleton

Angelina Carleton is the Founder of Legacy Planning©, an advisory firm specific to helping entrepreneurs and family business members design their legacies. She is the hostess of the “Design Your Legacy” podcast which ranks in the top 10% of all podcasts globally. She domiciles in Beverly Hills, California with her husband Deryl and their dog, Darla.