Mea Culpa

Love might mean never having to say you’re sorry. But leadership does not. In fact, leaders feel so vulnerable right now they can’t say sorry quickly enough. Most don’t even bother trying to explain themselves or to justify what happened.
This week alone there have been three high profile apologies. Mitt Romney insisted he didn’t remember bullying anyone in high school (though there was good evidence he did), but that did not preclude him from apologizing anyway. I don’t remember all the pranks, he said, but “if I did stupid things, why, I’m afraid I’ve got to say sorry for it.” Joe Biden apologized to Barack Obama for putting him in a position in which he just about had to promptly and publicly declare his support for same-sex marriage. And Jamie Dimon apologized for JPMorgan’s $2 billion blunder.
In fact, Jamie Dimon apologized once, and then twice, and then thrice, and then again, having apparently concluded that frequent displays of contrition were in his best interest. Once Dimon admitted that he himself had been “dead wrong.” More often he couched his apology in the collective, deflecting personal responsibility by resorting to the proverbial “we” or to an abstraction such as “the bank” – as in “we made a terrible, egregious mistake” or the bank’s strategy was “flawed, complex, poorly reviewed, poorly executed, and poorly monitored.”
Apologies quickly and apparently authentically tendered tend to defuse the situation. But make no mistake. People might, if they are so inclined, forgive a leader. But they will not forget – which is why apologies must be strictly rationed. Leaders who choose to accept blame and express regret should consider their apology a chip that can be used only once. For publicly to confess to a serious mistake or to wrongdoing is to expose yourself the world over as ineffectual or unethical (or both) – which is why no 21st century leader is likely to survive an apology a second time.

One comment

  1. has the pendulum swung the other way? Not too long ago you noted that apologizing was not in the average pol’s or celebrity’s “lexicon”. Now are you warning a pol, let’s say, to make sure that if (s)he apologizes once, (s)he cover up further lapses in judgment or decision making?………………………………………………….

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