Sep 222004

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part II: Admitting Mistakes

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part II: Admitting Mistakes

The press conference this past spring where President Bush embarrassingly refused to admit that he had ever made any big mistakes, other than to reiterate his gaffe at trading Sammy Sosa when he owned the Texas Rangers, brings up another issue in this series: is it good for leaders, both political and corporate, to admit mistakes?

On the corporate side, I think the ability to admit a mistake is a must. Again, I’ll refer back to Jim Collins’ books Good to Great and Built to Last, both of which talk about humility and the ability to admit mistakes as a critical component of emotional intelligence, the cornerstone of solid leadership. And in another great work on corporate leadership, The Fifth Discipline, writer Peter Senge talks about “learning systems” and the “learning organization” as far superior companies. My experience echoes this. Publicly admitting a mistake, along with a careful distillation of lessons learned, can go a long way inside a company to strengthening the bond between leader and team, regardless of the size of the company.

But in politics, the stakes are higher and weirder — and the organization is a nation, not a company. Publicly admitting a single mistake can be a leader’s downfall. It’s too easy these days for political opponents to seize on a mistake as a “flip flop” and turn a candidate’s own admission into a highly-charge negative ad.

There was a fantastic op-ed in The Wall Street Journal back on April 15 on this topic, which unfortunately doesn’t have an available link at the moment, entitled “Bush Enters a Political Quandary As He Faces Calls for an Apology.” I’ll try to both quote from and summarize the article here since it’s central to this topic:

“For a politician, is an apology a sign of weakness or strength? That is the debate now swirling around President Bush after a prime-time news conference in which he refused reporters’ invitations to acknowledge any specific mistakes in handling the issue of terrorism or offer an apology to Sept. 11 victims’ families. Mr. Bush deflected the invitation, saying, ‘Here’s what I feel about that: The person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden.’ Mr. Bush’s quandary is a time-honored struggle for politicians. While some have found a public apology helps them out of a tough spot, others discovered it can fuel more criticism. So far, there isn’t a definitive answer.”

The article goes on to say that while Harry Truman’s “the buck stops here” mentality was de rigeur in the Beltway for a while (through Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco and Reagan’s poor handling of Beirut), nowadays, apologies are a dreaded last resort. The reason? The rise of partisanship and the use of ethics and congressional or special counsel investigations used to humiliate or defeat political opponents by raising the spectre of corruption. The examples? Gingrich’s struggles in 1996 over his book; Clinton’s ridiculous linguistics machinations (“it depends what the definition of ‘is’ is”) around the Lewinsky scandal; and Lott’s downfall over segregationist comments.

The piece wraps up by saying that “Mr. Bush was backed into the apology quandary by one of his administration’s toughest critics, former White House terrorism expert Richard Clarke…Since then, White House officials have been pressured to do likewise [apologize to victims’ families about the government’s failings on 9/11] — or explain why they won’t…[but] aides are convinced that admitting error would only embolden Mr. Bush’s critics in the Democratic Party and the news media.”

So the question is: would Bush be better off by saying “Sorry, folks, we thought there were WMD in Iraq, but it turns out we were wrong. And we miscalculated how difficult it would be to win the war, how many troops it would take, and how many lives would be lost. I still feel like it was right for us to go to war there for the following four reasons…”?

I’m not sure about that. He’d certainly be more intellectually honest, and a number of people in intellectual circles would feel better about him as a leader, but my guess is that he thinks it would cost him the election in today’s environment. My conclusion is that today’s system is discouraging politicians from admitting mistakes, and that it will take an exceptionally courageous leader (neither Bush nor Kerry as far as I can tell) to do so.

In the end, while humility appeals to many people in a leader, it’s not for everyone. Fortunately for us, CEOs don’t have to run for office and most CEOs don’t have to face some the same level of public, personally competitive, and media scrutiny that politicians do. Now that’s an interesting conclusion that I didn’t intend at the beginning of the post — being a good political leader and being a good politician are sometimes deeply at odds with each other.

Next up in the series: Not sure! Any ideas? Please comment on the blog site or by emailing me.

  • Ed

    I was reading Andy Sack’s blog and was wondering how a CEO who blogs balances the disparate goals of giving enough insight to be interesting but not give away trade secrets like positioning or financial drivers.

    Also would be interested to hear your views on benefits of being NYC as a startup, hiring the best people, systems development – e.g. reporting, resellers, strategic investors, acquisitions… Why there’s lots of stuff to blog on.

  • Jacob Pang

    I was listening to BBC World Service the other day, and the exact same commentary was on, about how Bush can’t admit any wrongdoing whatsoever if he wants to win the election, while Kerry on the other hand needs to paint a picture that Bush has “screw” up in Iraq.

    The election is shaping up really based on 2 issues, “economics” + “Iraq” (security).

  • Mike Mayor

    So you’e only asking for politicians to be honest Matt? Is that all? :)

    Couldn’t agree more on the CEO side. A CEO who cannot admit to failure is doomed to be surrounded by “yes men” and, therefore,must
    go it alone. Whereas the CEO who admits to having the odd bad idea every now and then is more likely to get truthful and accuruate information from those around him/her. Which scenario would you prefer to base your next decision on?

    However, I look more to Hollywood for fostering the faux CEO/Board Room stereotypes, not politics. Look no further than the highest ranked show among 18 to 46 year olds: The Apprentice. Trump is just one contemporary example of successfully perpetuating the “kill or be killed” mentality of the ideal CEO. In his book, “How to Get Rich” one of his lessons is to “never take the blame for anything”.
    (meanwhile “Trump” gets rich by being a caricatureof a CEO)

    The ideal CEO needs to set the example for the behavior of his employees, and creates opportunities by building relationships not “squashing the competition”. And like it or not, the ideal Board Room is actually a Think Tank of great minds working toward a common goal rather than a place to play mind games and mental poker.

    Unfortunately, both of these things make for a horrible TV show but do contribute to building truly great companies! On the other hand, watch too many TV shows (or follow the politician’s lead) and you’ll likely become a CEO whose success is comparable to the CEOs of Enron and Tyco.

    Mike Mayor