Apologizing: Putting self aside
By Col. Gene C. Kamena (Ret.), Professor, Air War College
/ Published November 12, 2010
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --
When the military police vehicle pulled behind my car with its blue lights flashing, I knew I had screwed up. I was not wearing a seat belt.
Not a big deal? It is if you are the brigade commander in Germany. It is if you have a policy requiring a week's restriction of driving privileges for any traffic offense. It is if you are left on the side of the road for forty minutes, for all to see, while the specialist from the MP confirms you are not on the FBI's most wanted list.
That evening, I called the commanding general and informed him of my transgression. His only comment was "make it right."
The next morning, as I entered the brigade headquarters and the charge of quarters dutifully called the building to attention; he also said with a wry smile, "Sir, I understand you had a brush with the law yesterday."
I needed to do something, and quickly.
Leaders make mistakes; good leaders acknowledge their mistakes and if appropriate, apologize. Apologizing is never easy, especially for someone in a position of authority. Easy or not, sometimes it is the right thing to do.
Happenstance had it that the monthly brigade run was scheduled the next morning. In front of more than three thousand soldiers and leaders, I told the story of what happened, admitted I was wrong, made no excuses, handed my license over to the brigade command sergeant major and walked for the next week (no one ever offered me a ride).
The above story is true. I relate this very embarrassing incident with the intent of passing on what I learned about leaders, mistakes and apologizing:
· When leaders make mistakes, big or small, people notice. They notice because they watch what leaders do. If there is a disconnect between what a leader says and what a leader does, people will remember what a leader does.
· Mistakes do not get better with time. My advice is to inform, communicate and remedy the situation as soon as practical.
· Tell the truth and set the record straight. I am convinced had I not apologized, rumors would have it that I was involved in a high-speed chase.
· Mean what you say. People will know if you are sincere or not.
· There can be only one standard. Whatever the rules, policies or practices, hold yourself to the same standard you do everyone else.
Apologizing for my misconduct was not easy, but it was the right thing to do. A leader must keep their ego in check. Good leaders hold themselves accountable for their mistakes, and when an apology is required, leaders put self aside.