I screwed up.
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How often have you heard those words? In government, let’s just say not often. Yet some of our biggest scandals have come to being because no one in power could come to say those words – it’s my fault. I screwed up.
So instead of just admitting a mistake, they compound the mistake by trying to hide the mistake. Remember that the problem with Watergate wasn’t the break-in, it was the cover-up. It wasn’t the relatively minor crime, but the criminal actions that compounded the crime, and later turned it into a crisis.
Yet to this day, it’s hard for those in the know to admit to something they knew was stupid – to admit the obvious. Maybe that’s because it’s darn near ingrained in our political and corporate culture that you’ll be burned if you ever state the obvious – if you ever admit to screwing up. No one wants to be the fall guy, because they don’t want to be the guy who falls.
I’m not so sure about that. I seem to recall President John Kennedy taking the blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, when he could have easily passed the buck. After all, he was a new President, just a couple of months in office. He could have easily argued the ill-timed invasion was actually hatched many months earlier in the prior administration by some of the best military brass in the world.
But Kennedy didn’t do that. Despite his own brother Bobby urging him to spread the blame, Kennedy made the decision to just take the heat. Not happily – but contritely.
As he would later muse to the press, “Success has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” This one was on him.
Yet far from hurting him, the young new president’s mea culpa actually endeared him. Soon afterwards, Kennedy’s poll numbers shot up, prompting his father Joe Kennedy to marvel at the time, “perhaps you should fail more often.”
My point is not to make light of a crisis, but to consider the dangers of compounding a crisis. Americans are an unusually forgiving people. Maybe it’s because they’re human beings themselves!
Think about that -- we all “get” screwing up, because we all “do” screw up. Yet those in power seem to think their days are numbered if they ever state the obvious and just ‘fess up.
No doubt, the growing and pervasive effect of litigation has had something to do with that. After all, once you accept the blame, these days you accept culpability as well. That’s tough, and that’s expensive too.
But I like to think it’s more risky – and more costly – not to accept the blame. Protracted struggles to hide culpability and malfeasance only heightens the culpability and begets more malfeasance, and I suspect, more lawsuits as well.
Just look at General Motors. In the name of saving pennies on a relatively cheap ignition part, the auto giant is now facing potentially billions of dollars in claims. What’s doubly ironic isn’t the cheap part, but the cheap and sordid way GM hid the obvious for years – within the company and outside the company.
GM’s trying to make good now, but you almost wonder how it is some of the supposedly smartest auto executives on the planet couldn’t see through the lunacy of hiding the obvious early on. Whatever an admission of sloppiness might have cost the company more than a decade ago, pales in comparison to the very real threat of going under today.
It’s sad, but then again, it’s not unusual. Just like it’s not unusual for companies that admit screw-ups to be forgiven. The New Coke fiasco of the 1980s stands out as one of corporate marketing’s greatest blunders. But I’m not so sure. Company management quickly realized they made a mistake, junking an old and treasured brand in favor of an unknown and later very much un-liked alternative. They quickly admitted as such. Old Coke returned, and get this, so did off-the-chart total cola sales. Who says you can’t have your New and Old Coke and drink it too?!
Politicians would be wise to remember their sins needn’t fizzle their careers. Look at Bill Clinton, given up for politically dead after an intern scandal that darn near drove him out of office – belatedly apologizes for his bad behavior and tries to carry on in that office. He did, and by the way, has become an elder statesmen worth more than $100 million since.
Americans forgave the sinner because they balanced the sin and the apology of the sinner. It helped that many personally liked Clinton and that the economy was soaring under Clinton (Richard Nixon was not so fortunate).
Let’s be clear. Clinton didn’t do any of this willingly or certainly immediately. But he did it. Critics say he had to be all but dragged kicking and screaming into admitting the obvious. But admit, he did, and succeed – he has.
That’s because Americans have a certain sympathy for underdogs or those who appear just dogged by troubles. The in-and-out-of rehab and jail Robert Downey, Jr. comes to mind. His fans still loved this gifted actor, though clearly troubled man back then– enough to make him Iron Man today. Who better to play the part of a tortured super soul than this tortured but self-effacing actor just trying to get by?
I often wonder whether politicians today bother to read history, because they so often repeat it. Perhaps had President Obama just admitted HE botched the healthcare law’s disastrous rollout, his poll numbers never would have tumbled so far down. Maybe if he just faced the American people immediately after it became so obvious – maybe if he had just said, “Folks, I really botched this. I really did think you could keep your doctor if you liked your doctor. I should have listened more closely, read more closely, heard my critics out more clearly. I should have trusted my very aides who were trying to warn me. But I didn’t. Instead of trusting them, I resorted to blaming them, and I’m sorry. But I’m going to make this right. And with your understanding, I’m going to make you right, and all of you proud. This is on me. Let the fix be on me…as well.”
I’m telling you – if the President were to have said that then, none of this nonsense would be happening now – or at least not as much nonsense. He also would have de-fanged his critics early on. He would have called their bluff, and stopped their bluster. Just like Richard Nixon would have done the same if right after the Watergate break-in he told the American people, “this was stupid, and it’s on me for letting it stupidly happen.”
There’d be no cover-up. No expletives deleted. No Watergate hearings. No resignation. He would have lanced the boil before it boiled out of control. But he didn’t, did he?
Just like GM didn’t nip this ignition thing at the start, and the philandering senator didn’t admit an inappropriate relationship (pick a politician, pick a relationship) at the start. The initial headlines kill your image, but denying the obvious risks killing your career.
Yet politicians, just like executives, keep repeating and compounding the same sins.
We teach our kids to admit mistakes, just like we urge them in so doing, not to repeat those mistakes. But we always do so with the assurance, you’ll be better for it, because you’ll soon be over it.
Some kids actually get that. It’s a wonder so many adults – and powerful adults, at that – do not.
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