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When Did 'Apology' Become a Dirty Word?

Charles Dharapak/AP

When thinking about apology, I've always appreciated the notion that you can't dig up. No matter how hard you try, you just keep digging that hole deeper and deeper. Sometimes, you need to put down your shovel, eat a little crow and offer an apology.

"An apology?" said comedian Steven Martin. "Bah! Disgusting! Cowardly! Beneath the dignity of any gentleman, however wrong he might be." An absurdist, and sadly true, statement--especially in light of our equally absurd politics. When looked at through the lens of the presidential campaign, the word "apology"  (much like "compromise" before it) has become a dirty word:

  • In June, some in President Obama's camp suggested that, due to uncertainty around when Mitt Romney left Bain Capital, that either he was responsible for outsourcing jobs...or a felon. Romney demanded an apology. The response via President Obama himself: "No, we won’t be apologizing." 
  • On Sept. 11, American embassies in Egypt and Libya came under attack, the latter resulting in the death of four Americans. In response to an unauthorized statement by the Embassy in Cairo meant to prevent anti-American protests over a crude anti-Islamic film, Romney said the statement amounted to an apology and that "an apology for America’s values is never the right course." 

What gives, guys? Demanding apologies, accusing others of apologizing--Mr. Romney even wrote a book called No Apology. I for one think a well delivered, and sincere, apology can be a sign of strength.

All leaders need to learn that an apology is an important tool. And I hesitate to call it a "tool" as apologies should be genuine--not transactional. They should emanate from a place of sincere reflection and acknowledgement that one can do better. In the eyes of those being lead, an apology shows that a leader is self-aware, capable of self-deprecation and open to change. It demonstrates an understanding of what makes us human--that nobody is right all the time.

Nobody is perfect and our political process, which forces us to pretend otherwise, does a disservice to the humanity of our leaders. Nobody in this country is infallible--least of all the two men who seek to run the place. Apology is a necessary companion to success as very few succeed without taking risks. Risks beget mistakes, mistakes beget failure and failure begets an apology. Apology then is a sign of strength and conviction--not weakness.

When you realize you've made a mistake, here are a few things to keep in mind as you contemplate how to apologize:

  1. Be genuine - Either you mean it or you don't. People know. The ability to be genuine comes from reflection. If you can't be genuine then you shouldn't be apologizing.
  2. Give no excuses - Don't focus on the "why" of the situation. Nobody needs to hear a justification or the logic in your thinking. Focus on the specific actions you're apologizing for, acknowledge where the mistake was made and don't fixate on explaining it.
  3. Get committed - How will you change? What will you do differently going forward? Actions speak louder than words--put yourself into action by committing to a new course.
  4. Inject humor - It's okay to add humor to an apology and make fun of yourself. The world is not ending. You'll get through this.
  5. Move on - Once you've apologized and acknowledged a fault, it's time to move on. People who aren't willing to move on after an apology are likely not deserving of one in the first place.

When has apologizing helped move you forward?

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Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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