One of the toughest things to articulate is the apology.
There are so many variations of the pseudo-apology, so many temptations to avoid accepting full responsibility for our mistakes (or, as good leaders often do, for the mistakes of others). For instance:
- The “You think I’m at fault for something, so I’ll apologize” apology – A line from For Good, a beautiful duet from the Broadway hit, Wicked, has Elphaba say to Glinda, “And just to clear the air, I ask forgiveness for the things I’ve done you blame me for.”Classic.
- The “I’m not really sorry, but I’ll apologize because it’s what I’m supposed to do” apology – The version of this with which I’m most familiar is, “Look, I’m sorry, okay?” with the implied “so get over it.”
- The “I’ll show I’m a leader (or a man, or a woman) by apologizing, but you’ll know who is truly to blame” apology. Professional staff just hate this one. The boss steps up to the microphone and says something like, “I was given bad advice, but I took it, so I’m to blame, and I apologize,” or “I apologize for the failures of some of my staff.” Thanks for taking one for the team, Boss!
- The “I’ll use the form of an apology to attack my foes” apology. “I regret what has happened here, but if _____ hadn’t opposed our efforts so strenuously, we wouldn’t be here.” A well-worn rhetorical counterpunch . . . but not an apology.
Anything added to the straight up apology (“I’m sorry that I did/did not do ________”) dilutes it. When we layer on qualifications, or spread the blame, or demand that others ‘get over it’, we strip our words of their apologetic force. Only those trapped in a co-dependent relationship fail to read such messages for what they are.
And then, there are the straight-forward, self-effacing acknowledgements of wrongdoing or inadequate performance or misjudgment that deserve the name “apology” and merit the response “you are forgiven.”
There’s a fair amount of apologizing, blaming and defending going on right now in Washington, what with the health insurance exchange problems and the policy cancellations, not to mention the continuing concerns about exactly what NSA is monitoring and under what
authority. Closer to home, Mayor Bill Foster of St. Petersburg, in a runoff battle against former state legislator Rick Kriseman, acknowledged (with a collective “we,” for which we’ll deduct a couple of points) that the process by which the Lens design was selected to replace the iconic but deteriorated Pier had been seriously flawed, putting form ahead of function.
The comment doesn’t end the controversy, and it won’t keep Mr. Kriseman from continuing to criticize Mayor Foster’s leadership. But it repositions the conversation from a battle over responsibility (a retrospective analysis) to a battle about the future (who will find the best solution going forward?).
That’s what apologies are for. They let us move beyond the past, which we cannot change, and focus on the future, which we can.