Vol. 68: The Keys to an Apology

Integrity, vulnerability and humility: keys to an apology


“Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.”  — Ezra Taft Benson

I was ready to return to our series on strategic finance after my last column about the integrity of umpire Jim Joyce and the accountability of BP… until I read a comment in the Washington Post by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University.

Citing Henry Ford’s infamous quote, “Never complain, never explain,” as the preferred way for business leaders to deal with disasters like the Gulf oil spill took me by surprise.

BP is the poster child for a failed apology

In appearing to criticize BP’s CEO Tony Hayward for apologizing for BP’s actions, Mr. Pfeffer extols the value of being on the “winning side,” that people respect strength and diffidence does not convey winning or power. Research in social psychology, he continues, “shows that acting embarrassed or remorseful conveys less power and results in less favorable impressions than acting angry.”

In the context of BP’s PR debacle, those comments seem wildly misplaced. Does Mr. Pfeffer think BP would have won our hearts and minds by taking no responsibility, “never explaining,” and that he should have acted like he was angry that people blamed BP for this unexpected accident? I can’t imagine worse advice than if I recommended that you chase down every meal with a quart of engine oil.

Where BP failed is not in its abject attempt at an apology. It failed to gain even a modicum of public support because its admissions reflected no sense of either authenticity or sensitivity. Even allowing for his aristocratic British accent, Tony Hayward’s apologies didn’t seem genuine but rather canned, trite and rehearsed. He didn’t seem to realize he was standing in the “spotlight of leadership.” The defensiveness that usually accompanies this lack of humility is what has doomed the ignominious BP public relations gambit.

Authenticity = Vulnerability = Believability

Patrick Lencioni recently wrote that the most important ingredient that differentiates top leaders is vulnerability. “What set the best ones apart,” he believes, “is their ability to know their limitations … and perhaps most important of all, freely and openly admit to others that they are aware of and comfortable with their shortcomings.” The word vulnerability is traditionally defined in terms of our susceptibility to attack, criticism or temptation, but in this context, it’s about admitting our weaknesses and openly acknowledging our shortcomings.

[pullquote]Humility is a kissing cousin of vulnerability …[/pullquote]

Humility is a kissing cousin of vulnerability, and as I wrote in a previous column in this space about the Seven Deadly Sins, it is usually seen as the opposite of pride, as a modest opinion of our own importance. When both humility and vulnerability are missing, pride and arrogance take over and serve as nursemaids to the kind of havoc that besieges BP.

So, what is the right way to approach a crisis, disaster or for that matter any challenging, controversial or emotionally charged issue that comes before us? I think there are three critical elements that must be present.

Integrity is the cornerstone of an apology

Integrity is the bedrock of any plan, and when it isn’t present, any approach is ultimately doomed. Honesty can certainly be taught to children, but I doubt that integrity can be taught to adults. You either have it or you don’t. Without it, you’ll be ripping out tree trunks trying to find humility or vulnerability anywhere nearby, so your ability to manage a crisis is already in grave jeopardy.

Humility is easy to recognize. It admits of error, that we’re not omniscient and are open and accepting of criticism and correction. It only comes when you believe that everyone is equally entitled to share the same air, and while each of us has different talents, some with extraordinary doses, none of us is better or more valuable than the next person. Like integrity, this conviction lives at the deepest core of our humanity, and while it’s not easily taught, it is often learned when the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” fill the air around our lives.

Vulnerability might be seen as the magic elixir that empowers integrity and reflects humility. To be vulnerable is to openly acknowledge mistakes and shortcomings, genuinely and with sensitivity, without being defensive. It’s withdrawing our defenses and allowing our humanity to be seen in all its naked power. In short, humility opens the door and vulnerability pours the drinks at the table of integrity.

If BP had followed umpire Jim Joyce’s example, leading with integrity leavened with humility and vulnerability, we’d be rooting them on, standing arm in arm to fight this terrible environmental disaster. As it is, we’re willing to carry on the fight … but BP hardly seems like an ally.


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