Arthur D. Collins, Jr.
Managing Partner, Acorn Advisors LLC
Wise leaders understand that if a serious mistake occurs on their watch, an honest apology is in order—whether or not the leader is the one who personally made the mistake. Not only can an honest apology go a long way in mitigating the impact of any miscalculation, miscommunication, or outright blunder, a leader’s reputation can be enhanced if he or she owns up to failure and then takes appropriate corrective action.
Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that none of us expect any head of state or CEO to be infallible, and we know that every government and organization will err from time to time, honest apologies still tend to be the exception rather than the rule. I offer seven important characteristics that in my view collectively define an honest apology, coupled with a few historical dos and don’ts—mostly, but not exclusively, from the world of business.
1. Personal (vs. Institutional) A leader should assume personal responsibility rather than simply act as a spokesperson for the institution he or she represents. On April 21, 1961, President John F. Kennedy did just that when, as Commander in Chief, he accepted “sole responsibility” for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, quoting an old saying that “victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.” Also, in arguably one of the best business case studies of how to successfully handle a crisis, Johnson & Johnson’s Chairman James Burke was universally praised when he immediately took personal responsibility for the seven deaths caused by cyanide-laced Tylenol in 1982 and then oversaw all aspects of the product recall, putting customer safety and satisfaction ahead of all other considerations. Contrast Burke’s response, and the resulting impact on his company, with that of Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, during the much-publicized incident in 2017 when a passenger was brutally dragged off an oversold UA flight.
2. Focused (vs. Ambiguous) An honest apology should address specific acts or failures, as well as those impacted parties, so it is clear that the leader understands the ramifications of what went wrong. When CEO Mary Barra personally apologized in 2014 for defective ignition switches on GM autos, her mea culpa was specific, timely, and showed genuine remorse for the resulting injuries and lives lost. While no deaths occurred when the new Apple Map app was introduced with a host of software problems in 2012, CEO Tim Cooke’s public apology was similarly swift, direct, and honest. Conversely, even though Uber CEO Travis Kalanick confessed that he needed to “fundamentally change and grow up,” his public apology didn’t satisfy upset customers or address the root cause of the problem, and it came only as a result of mounting public furor after a string of disastrous revelations. Kalanick ultimately was forced to step down as CEO in June 2017.
3. Genuine (vs. Insincere) Both the words and tone of an apology need to convey honest remorse and atonement for mistakes made and any resulting damage caused. In a classic lesson of what not to do, BP CEO Tony Hayward was appropriately blasted in the media for showing little compassion following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 when he said, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.” In another public relations nightmare, after AIG CEO Robert Benmoshe made racially inflammatory comments while defending executive bonuses during a Wall Street Journal interview in 2013, he only made matters worse when his botched attempt to apologize to Representative Elijah Cummings seemed equally insensitive and insincere.
4. Excuse-free (vs. Blame-shifting) When apologizing, there should be no excuses given or any attempt to shift or deny blame, minimize harm caused, or whitewash a bad situation. Michael Horn, the CEO of Volkswagen’s North America Region, struggled unsuccessfully to keep his job when in 2015 he refused to accept any personal responsibility for VW’s cheating on emission standards—instead shifting blame to “a couple of software engineers” who acted on their own. CEOs are not the only ones who deliver good and bad apologies as evidenced by what happened following a 2010 stampede that took place in a tunnel at the Love Parade in Duisburg, Germany. Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Christian Wulff immediately expressed sadness and extended condolences to the friends and families of the 21 young people who were killed and the more than 500 others who were injured, the festival organizer, the police, the mayor, and all the other local officials involved refused to take any responsibility and in turn blamed each other for the tragedy.
5. Timely (vs. Late) The sooner an apology is given, the better the chance the apology will be accepted by those who count. In the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez massive oil spill along the Alaskan coast, Exxon CEO Lawrence Rawl drew well-deserved criticism when he waited six days to speak, sent lower-level executives to Alaska to deal with the problem, and then tried to justify the company’s actions while declining to take any personal responsibility for mistakes made. In another example, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf ended up losing his job in 2016 not only because a series of unethical practices at the bank came to light, but also because of his inability to immediately take personal responsibility and address the problems in a timely manner.
6. Complete (vs. Partial) Getting all the facts on the table, admitting all known shortcomings, and clearly articulating what is not yet been determined will increase believability and limit any accusation of selective disclosure or a cover-up. President Reagan and the Rogers Presidential Commission garnered high praise when no stone was left unturned as the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion that killed seven crewmembers was investigated, including a full report with root causes and corrective recommendations. Contrast that approach with the Soviet Union cover-up of the nuclear reactor explosion in 1986 that has killed many people and that has left the city of Chernobyl a radioactive wasteland—a disaster that only came to light when Sweden discovered and reported it.
7. Corrective (vs. Unresponsive) It is not enough to just acknowledge mistakes, it is necessary to articulate an action plan to correct what went wrong and to make sure the same problem doesn’t reoccur. Returning to Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol crisis, the company quickly recalled all outstanding products, provided free replacements with a similar product, and re-launched Tylenol two months later with improved tamperproof packaging. As a result, the company’s reputation was significantly enhanced by the actions taken, and within a year Tylenol’s market share climbed back to near its pre-recall level.
The eyes of the world are now squarely focused on President Trump, waiting to see what he will say and do next. Most experts are predicting that the president will leave any apologies or subsequent damage control efforts to senior members of his administration. Whatever the case, let’s hope that the president’s advisors and confidants are wise students of history and recognize the power of an honest apology.