Whatever happened to saying “I’m Sorry”?
Almost every day around the world, we are seeing people in senior at the top of government acting in ways that clearly require a full and sincere apology. We simply never seem to get one though.
As part of this, I have two words for those in positions of power and authority who make mistakes, who get it wrong.
It is a strength to apologise.
Humility and vulnerability are strengths. We live in a world that is highly VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous). Now, more than ever, it is time for us to Invest in Leadership that is “VUCA2.0” (Visionary, Understanding, Courageous, Adaptable).
Obvious as all of that may sound, it is almost as if, in political and also corporate leadership around the world, there has developed a quite pervasive collective amnesia of the power of an apology, as well as specifically how to say sorry.
Today I’m feeling the value in reflection on this topic, perhaps to inoculate myself against this type of behaviour that seems to be all around us, to remind me that there is another way of being and leading.
So taking the time here to both reflect and then to bring forward some past blogs I’ve written about leadership and apologies.
Being a stubborn child
I remember both being a young child and also being a father to young boys. Sometimes I did something wrong and didn’t apologise, even when caught doing it. I’d first stubbornly deny it ever happened, then, after that, refuse even more stubbornly to apologise. I also saw the same behaviour in my boys when they were very young. Like me, like most of us, they stopped doing it quickly of their own accord.
Oddly enough, even now incidences of hiding errors and avoiding apologies at a very young age can playback in my mind like a high definition movie. In this way they act as reminders to me of who I am, using occasions when, as a child, I acted out of integrity.
Being honest and truthful is core to my being, as is admitting when I’ve got it wrong and, critically, apologising to those I hurt through my errors and actions. In addition, in reflecting today, I give credit to my parents and extended family. The fact I can recall these memories from such a young age absolutely means that I was modelling the behaviours of my parents in having the humility and empathy to give a sincere apology.
“Don’t do as I do, do as I say!”
Yes, I very much give credit to my parents for informing my values and behaviours, as my sons do with me and their mother.
Of course, in amongst past stories of childhood wrongdoing, there are also some common parental statements, often used in hindsight to bring levity and humour.
One of them that typically comes out at a time of stress is when a smart young child is savvy enough to recognise an inconsistency in what a parent is telling them to do and how the child has previously witnessed the parent act.
This often ultimately results in the parent, in trying to keep control of the (typically heated, by that point) situation, saying “Don’t do as I do, do as I say!”
Nonsensical, yes? So why do we keep seeing leaders acting against the rules they have set for others, hiding it, then, when caught, refusing to apologise? Read on for a current example and how they could have done things better!
Open, Honest and Fair
More reflection for a moment though. For years I worked in a business that hugely anchored on core values. In hindsight those values were key to why I chose to invest years of my life there. Those values were:
Putting that in the frame of apologies:
- Open – don’t hide what you’ve done
- Honest – speak your truth, say why you did it
- Fair – Be empathic to others, share how the way you behaved was wrong and how you’ve impacted others
There have countless examples of leaders and those of influence around the world behaving totally counter to this, but on this Sunday morning the one that is on my mind is that of the top news story in the UK yesterday, the behaviour of Dominic Cummings, the hugely powerful chief special advisor to the Prime Minister.
In short, at the end of March he drove 260 miles while knowingly infected with Covid19 to the town where his parents lived. He was literally spotted in his home town, but when media asked questions, they were shut down, until two newspapers broke the story on Friday 22nd, two days ago.
On Friday night and all day yesterday, Saturday, there has been a most unseemingly spinning and justifying by senior members of the elected government to protect him.
It is astonishing that, in doing this, they cannot see how uproar is mounting across people of all political hues across the country at how he so clearly felt there was one rule for him and one for everybody else. Instead of apologising, he and the government are spinning, dancing on the head of a pin to justify what he did.
Imagine if, just say, he had used Open, Honest and Fair:
- Open : Being open, he and the government would have answered calls from the media for information on the matter right away, not hope it went away, only to emerge as a major story seven weeks later. As in childhood, far better to admit early rather than be caught later.
- Honest : Speaking his truth, instead of spinning, dissembling, justifying, he could have openly, humbly and vulnerably shared why he did what he did. He and his wife were getting sick with Covid and they do have a young child, plus only a few days earlier, he was shown on TV almost bolting out of the offices at 10 Downing Street on the day a cabinet minister was announced as having tested positive. Fear makes us act irrationally, imagine if he had shared his fears? We may have then had some empathy for his choices and actions.
- Fair : The uproar in the public is far less about the lack of being open and honest though. Sadly, people have grown used to this in leaders so much. No, the uproar is that what he did was not fair. Millions have sacrificed, following the rules of the lockdown, not seeing family members even as they became ill, even died, even missing funerals. Totally understandable then, that when it came out that one of those responsible for those laws, rules and guidance consciously acted contrary to them, people are outraged. So, to this last point, imagine if he simply, sincerely and contritely apologised for doing this.
Yes, it perhaps sounds like an alternate universe, the idea of being Open, Honest and Fair in politics and leadership, but just imagine?
How to say sorry
I’ve written so often on this blog about trust, integrity, leadership. I’ve also written about the power of apologising.
Leaders lead by example.I feel today the need to re-read these myself, further inoculation against this rising tide of early childhood stubbornness in hiding the truth and, when caught, avoiding any form of true apology.
I hope you also take time to read these two posts, it may help further inoculate you too.
Also published on Medium.