Our Flaw in National Character

(image via Siednji Leon)

(image via Siednji Leon)

I do not typically post political content. However, I have been so concerned by the leadership gap at all levels since Katrina, I felt moved to write the following.

Like many of you I have been horrified and overwhelmed by the tragedy of Katrina. So many people displaced and poorly treated, matched only by horrendous leadership at all levels. For the past weeks, I have been looking for two words from anyone in government, two words that may help in the national healing and more importantly prevent this from occurring again. Those two words are, "I'm sorry". I won't be holding my breath. Sadly, the spin-doctors have convinced our elected representatives that to admit fault is a sign of weakness, and the only way to handle a mistake is to escalate one's commitment to an already bad decision. "That's my story and I'm stickin' to it" has become the strategy for getting out of trouble, even when thousands of lives and billions of dollars have been lost. We live in an age of limited responsibility and "not playing the blame game" really means "not playing the accountability game". The buck that stopped here was long ago spent on Karl Rove.

This is a national epidemic and failure of our country's character. Ultimately, to say you are sorry takes deep courage. It is the right and just thing to do. It is a flaw of huge proportions not to apologize, especially when the errors in judgment have cost so much. As a parent I would be embarrassed if I raised my kids to exhibit the levels of arrogance and certainty I have recently seen in all levels of our government. But there is something even more insidious in this behavior. It prevents true learning and real change from occurring. As long as our leaders are unwilling to admit mistakes, then the ability to take life's events and translate them into transformation is impossible. If all we do is say "It wasn't me" or "I did nothing wrong", how can fundamental shifts occur. When our commitment to looking good is stronger than our commitment to honest self-reflection and learning, we stay stuck in the justification of our errors.

Learning only happens when an individual understands that there have been real consequences from mistakes of judgment or action. Without this awareness, no hope exists for future difference. Frankly I don't understand why our government has less of a moral backbone than the simple lessons we teach our children. In my experience, even the worst of mistakes can be forgiven if we are willing to do three things.

First, we must apologize, with sincerity and without self-justification. An apology that says, "I'm sorry, but if you hadn't done this, I wouldn't have done that," is no apology at all. What is needed is an expression of true remorse that conveys the impact of our decisions or actions. Second, we should talk about what we’ve learned from the experience. This helps put the situation in a learning context, and even in extreme circumstances, can help create connection and movement. Finally, and most critically, we need to say what we will do differently going forward. During times of national disaster, politics as usual does nothing more than polarize us as a nation into finger pointing and deflected accountability. Were I one of the thousands of Gulf residents displaced, my life destroyed, I would want local, state and federal leaders whose highest commitment was to action and not to politcal spin and saving face.

A favorite saying goes, “Good experience comes from good judgment. And good judgment comes from bad experience.” This only occurs when one admits error. “I am sorry. I made a mistake”, is the first true step to any substantive learning and even healing.

LeadershipDavid Baum