Owning Up Is Hard To Do

With apologies to Neil Sedaka, but owning up to something, taking responsibility for your behavior and the results of your misconduct is very difficult. Darn near impossible at times.

Have you ever realized you’re absolutely in the wrong and the only way out is to take full responsibility and apologize? While I wish I could tell you I’ve led a faultless existence and never owed an apology to anyone, the truth is I’ve had to swallow hard and say “I’m sorry” on a number of occasions in my life. I’m not talking about apologizing for being ten minutes late to an appointment or forgetting to grab a fax out of the machine and give it to someone at the office. I’m talking about brink of humiliation, sweaty palms, stomach-knotting owning up and apologizing.

I once shouted at someone on my staff in front of the rest of my staff. Really chewed the poor guy out. His offence was real, but my method of dealing with it was ridiculously over the top. I stormed out of the bullpen where the staff worked and went back to my office. Within about 30 seconds, my stomach bunched tighter than sausage casing as I realized I had been completely wrong. I took another 30 seconds or so to summon some courage, went back to the bullpen, and made a public apology to the staff. Every second of it was agony, but it was the right thing to do. Years later, I’m still friends with the guy I chewed out.

What brings this to mind is the recent public apologies of Toyota and Tiger Woods. The No.1 car manufacturer and the No. 1 golfer in the world have had their issues of late.  Both have altered their behavior to deal with their situations (results are pending in both cases); both have taken responsibility; both have apologized.

And both of them have been criticized for not going far enough, for not being sensitive to their situations. It’s just me, but I’m inclined to grade Tiger’s apology as “good enough.” Lots of people have said they thought it was scripted, stiff, unfeeling, all about protecting his sponsorships, and self-righteous with the press. Yup, it was pretty much all of those things. But Tiger is a lone man in the eye of a self-created storm. When I consider the agony I felt at apologies that were much smaller in scale of wrongdoing and audience, I feel like Tiger stepped up and did the best he could.

As for Toyota, well, its apologies have struck me as lame. This is a gigantic and successful corporation, where it’s reasonable to assume they have a corporate communications department ready to deal with crises. Where they have some kind of risk-management system to assess potential problems. But their apologies regarding the brake and gas pedal problems have been pathetic. Toyota’s leaders have shattered confidence in a wonderful brand, hurt shareholder value, and most importantly, may have caused injury and death. They have known they had problems for years, didn’t bother with a proper risk assessment, and now say their dealers are moving swiftly to fix the problems. But they failed to own up to the problem in the first place, when it was the right thing to do. Before the injuries and deaths. I haven’t a clue how you apologize for that.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, I’ve spent a lot of time researching Dwight Eisenhower for a book I’ve written. My favorite Ike story took place in the wee hours of the morning as the Allied forces were heading to France for D-Day. Ike had given the order launching the invasion, within hours hundreds of thousands of sailors, soldiers, and airmen would be in combat.

Before Eisenhower ever issued the order to go, he had assessed the risks and completely understood the possible consequences. In those waiting hours, with his men on the way, Ike wrote a press release reflecting that risk assessment, a release to be used in the event the invasion was a failure.

He could have talked about the complexity of the mission, the challenges of the tides and the weather, the hardened German resistance waiting in France. He could have mentioned that he had consulted the military experts and that their consensus was it was time to go. But he made no excuses and rationalized nothing:

 “Our landings . . . have failed . . . and I have withdrawn the troops. . . . The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

That’s how you own up.

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