The two most important words in organisational life may be 'I apologise', but saying sorry can be counterproductive unless the sentiment is backed with service delivery changes

In recent weeks Network Rail chief executive John Armitt has provided a superlative lesson in public services leadership. Why? Because he made an unequivocal, sincere and lavish public apology for the failure of his organisation that led to the Cumbrian rail crash on 23 February.

You remember he said that his organisation was 'devastated to conclude that the set of points caused this terrible accident'. Powerful and emotional words. Mr Armitt had considered resigning over the issue but decided against it, itself an act of leadership because of the likely opprobrium that will come as the inquiry into the crash continues.

There are of course times when choosing to resign is the right thing to do at a time of crisis, but it can be interpreted as running away with adverse consequences for the integrity of the individual concerned. Clearly, Mr Armitt is made of sterner stuff.

Arguably, the two most important words in organisational life are 'I apologise', but knowing when to apologise and empathise with public feeling is a key leadership skill. Doing it with genuine sincerity and feeling is even more challenging.

Another example of genuine heartfelt empathy was provided by Rudolph Giuliani, who as mayor of New York at the time of 9/11 was strong enough to let his voice brim with pain, compassion and love. When he said 'the number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear', he showed a side of himself most people had never seen. This emphasized positive aspects of his leadership role and style.

Japanese approach

The approach of both Messrs Armitt and Giuliani reflect more of a Japanese than a Western approach. The Japanese see apology as an attitude of humbleness and concern for others. Apologising and diligent attempts to resolve an impossible situation are therefore seen as basic courtesy.

Not only did Mr Armitt apologise humbly but he also accepted without reservation the interim conclusions of the inquiry into the rail crash. Clear, simple and unequivocal messages that no-one could misunderstand. Good communication is no more complicated than that.

The downside of apologising is that its impact is lost if done frequently. We see this commonly with many public service companies. The frequency of apologising for late running or poor provision of services negates the impact and increases cynicism among consumers. Apologies also are fairly meaningless if they do not address their concerns and rectify poorly performing operational systems. Mr Armitt knows that the key to Network Rail's success is delivery, in his case, implementing the findings of the review into the train crash.

NHS chief executive David Nicholson also knows that the key to a successful NHS and corporate managerial credibility is delivery, which presumably is why he is asking managers to spend more time doing just that rather than publicly critiquing government health policy (HSJ, 1 March).

Notwithstanding the consequences of a lack of a coherent and compelling vision for the NHS (a theme I have commented on before), managers are first and foremost only as good as their track record of decision-making and bottom-line delivery of local services. Judging the leadership ability of managers on their eloquence in commenting on agreed government policy is now going to be much further down the appraisal process.