Leadership and apologies

Leadership and apologies

6 April 2010

Managing For Society, The Manila Times

I’m a sucker for apologies, especially from powerful people. In a world where the high and mighty make decisions that affect the lives of so many of the voiceless, it’s encouraging that high-profile people can muster the courage to humbly account for themselves and seek forgiveness from those they have affected as well as from the general public.

Public apologies by powerful and prominent people become more meaningful if they have certain features. In the case of elected officials, these apologies are reminders that all power truly emanates from the governed and that all incumbents must answer to the governed. In 2005, President Arroyo apologized for a “lapse in judgment” when she had a phone conversation with a Comelec official during an election. By saying that “you deserve an explanation from me because you are the people I was elected to serve,” the President emphasized the core ideal of public governance – that public service is a public trust.

Public apologies also need to highlight that despite people’s varying social stations, members of society must hold themselves to universal standards of decent behavior. Golf sensation Tiger Woods emphasized this when he publicly apologized for having cheated on his wife. He explained: “Money and fame made me believe I was entitled. I was wrong and foolish. I don’t get to live by different rules. The same boundaries that apply to everyone apply to me.” Given Woods’ fame, his admission of fault and expression of regret help strengthen the social belief that marital infidelity is wrong.

Public apologies should help people understand the factors that have led to a problematic situation. People become anxious when there is a gap in their knowledge about an important issue. Toyota president Akio Toyoda apologized for safety issues that caused the company to recall more than 8 million cars. More importantly, he explained with refreshing candor the mindset that led to the safety problems. “We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization, and we should sincerely be mindful of that.” In a business world that glamorizes growth as a prime objective, Toyoda accurately explained that imprudent growth can be the root of serious business blunders. How many business leaders would admit to that?

Of course, an apology is just a beginning. Much more is expected from a truly repentant person. The goal of apologizing should not just be to arrest a slide in reputation (the concern of the PR people) or to avoid liability (the concern of the lawyers). It is to restore and even strengthen trust that has been lost. And this latter goal depends not on the apology itself but on what the penitent is prepared to do to rectify the situation.

Pope Benedict XVI recently apologized to victims of child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. But he also called for decisive action so that such horrible incidents can be prevented. "Urgent action is needed to address [the causes behind the abuses],” he explained as he urged the church leaders “to address the problem of abuse that has occurred within the Irish Catholic community, and to do so with courage and determination.”

But a public apology is anything but an easy way out. For one thing, it tends to raise public expectations that the errant ways will stop. When President Arroyo said, “I want to assure you that I have redoubled my efforts to serve the nation and earn your trust,” many gave her the benefit of the doubt while expecting her to exercise greater prudence in her future behavior. Sadly, she has repeatedly failed in this regard.

Leaders do make mistakes, and nothing sends a more responsible signal than their apologizing and, equally important, following through.

Dr. Benito Teehankee is the Aquino associate professor in business and governance at the De La Salle University Ramon V. del Rosario Sr. Graduate School of Business. His email address is teehankeeb@yahoo.com.