Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 26, 2019
The summer heat is even more heightened by the current political fires (not necessarily more light here, just more heat) that are consuming a vast swath of our digital social media forest. And while accusations flow back and forth, at no time does it seem remotely likely that anyone will apologize for wrongs, real or imagined, for either current or past behavior. So here is the question: Is the power or value of an apology different in politics than it is in leading an entrepreneurial adventure? In other words, when, if ever, does it make sense to say “I’m sorry” and fall on one’s proverbial sword?
The history of the “sword” dates back to ancient Rome where our pal Plutarch talks about the value of a noble death in “The Life of Brutus.” Then Shakespeare gets into the act with Julius Caesar and the death of Mark Antony. Finally, when it comes to swords and falling on them, no one excels like the Japanese with their understanding of honor and “hari kari.” So there is a long and rich history that supports leaders standing up and acknowledging the problems they created — and with honor and dignity admitting them — and then feeling the need to make the ultimate sacrifice for the wrong committed. Another idiom in the same genre is to “throw someone under the bus.” In that event, usually someone else. It is often the example of the leader not taking responsibility personally, but rather finding a junior-level person and sending him out to find some tires — for the good of the company. Someone has to “take the fall.”
Without going to the literal extreme, the question is when does it make good sense to apologize? Well, in politics, the answer appears to be never. To support that answer, I turn to Cass Sunstein, professor at Harvard Law School, who has written recently on the topic. Whether it is military service, insults to religious groups, statements on rape or abortion or sexual harassment charges, etc. — he finds that the baseline answer is “an apology is a risky strategy.” And the corollary to that is that no good deed goes unpunished.
Sunstein details the political arc of Al Franken, who both apologized and then resigned from his Senate seat due to allegations of sexual harassment. What Sunstein finds in that case, as well as the myriad other political resignations, is that “apologies do not increase support for people who have said or done offensive things.” He says that “while apologies might be morally mandatory,” as a matter of strategy, it is better to remain silent or duck and dodge, but taking the fall, unfortunately, usually leads to never getting back up again.
The reason I find this topic interesting is that in my personal experience in the world of deals, technology and startups, I find that the apology is quite powerful and, if made sincerely and with human acknowledgment, can be elevating. When the CEO says that he made a mistake and is sorry, the team usually is inclined to forgive. As a matter of leadership, I support the CEO taking the “blame” even when he/she is not necessarily and directly the real root cause.
Nota bene: It must be real and sincere. Your team will easily and quickly see pretense or posturing (Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook or Travis Kalanick/Uber).
I can think of multiple deals and relationships in which positive outcomes occurred after negative beginnings because I was willing to apologize, to recognize the other person’s humanity and feelings. Now, I am not a Pollyanna. I do not believe that an apology is a magic elixir. It is not a medicine where you get relief in six hours. But more often than not, it works.
I have been longtime partners with one fellow, whom I swore at one point I would never talk to again, believing deeply that he wronged me to the core. After a while, we got past it (with an apology from me), and we are now back to making money together. I will confess that I did not believe that it was truly my fault. In fact, I think he should have apologized to me, but as Woody Allen says in “Annie Hall,” we make crazy, irrational relationships work because “we need the eggs.”
Rule No. 624
“Hello” by Adele