Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 28, 2017
I believe in second chances. It is one of the reasons that I spend time teaching entrepreneurship in the prison system.
My experience with the inmates is that the vast majority exhibit a deep sense of remorse; they both understand and can say that they are sorry. If they had it to do over again, they would not make that stupid, destructive, even deadly decision. They have looked at their own world and the world of their victim and they have said, “I am sorry.” And now they ask for forgiveness.
But what about our world? How do we apologize? How do we say I am sorry? For some insight, I turned to Arthur Collins Jr., former chairman and CEO of Medtronic.
Collins says, “Surprisingly, it is more of a rare occurrence when leaders own up and say, ‘listen, I’m sorry.’ ” He cites examples where the honest apology enhances the reputation of the individual, but it is not the norm. Mostly, leaders view the apology as a sign of weakness. For further examples on this topic, please study the current administration in Washington, D.C.
An example of an unhelpful apology (the diesel emissions-gate scandal) was issued by Michael Horn, head of Volkswagen Group of America, who said, “Our company was dishonest … we totally screwed up. We have to make things right … we are committed to do what must be done.” But before finally taking the fall, Horn first blamed the software engineers, saying they acted on their own. Six months later, he was fired.
Rather than go with the honest apology early, he chose to try the slip and slide. And he got caught. The reason people try to dodge the bullet is they think they can get away with it. Gary Becker, Nobel prize-winning economist, says that “criminal behavior is rational”; it is like parking illegally and not getting a ticket — the potential benefits outweigh the potential costs.
Collins advises that if you are going to apologize, do it quickly and sincerely. The longer you wait, the worse it gets. Now I need to pause here. What fascinates me is that everyone knows this rule — everyone from the age of 3 knows that fessing up is the best policy — so my question is: Why do so many people in high places get it wrong?
Look at the Tylenol contamination incident of 1982. James Burke, CEO, took personal responsibility, launched a nationwide recall immediately, (he did not wait to be challenged or found prevaricating, he just did it), returned to the market with tamper-proof lids and reclaimed 30 percent of the worldwide market (which had gone to 7 percent after the recall). Then Collins makes the comparison to Travis Kalanick, Uber co-founder, who was unable to apologize until the day the board removed him.
It seems the initial response is usually to try to cover it up or make up a bogus story. But today, in the age of social media, the ability to “tough it out” is essentially zero. There are cameras and recording devices everywhere. A lie lasts about a minute before it is challenged somewhere, somehow by someone.
Exxon CEO Lawrence Rawl (the Valdez spill) and BP CEO Anthony Hayward (Deepwater Horizon spill) got fired for delay, obfuscation and lack of compassion. This characteristic, namely the ability to quickly acknowledge your error, is a key component for a CEO. Avoid selective and partial disclosure. Transparency should prevail. In the case of the honest mistake, I want to be quick with the apology and beg for forgiveness.
But clearly, I am not giving a pass to fraud, deceit and dishonesty. In those instances, saying you are sorry may be nice, even therapeutic, but the bottom line is indelible — you lied.
In a final analysis I turn from commerce to religion and the Talmud, which states that God created repentance before he created the universe. The personal apology comes from a desire to relieve ourselves from a guilty conscience (you violated a moral norm) as well as a desire to restore some self-respect. An apology turns the shame of the offense and redirects it to yourself. Therein you give the offended the power to forgive, which is a gift most of us cannot refuse. I am continually astounded when the victim’s family forgives the person who committed the crime. I would hope I could do the same.
Rule No. 526: Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.– Gandhi