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.