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Why Can't Mitt Romney Admit a Mistake?

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Mitt Romney made a kind of evasive blanket apology after the Washington Post reported recently that he was the ringleader in the bullying of a fellow student at the Michigan prep school Romney attended in the 1960s. "If I did stupid things, why, I'm afraid I've got to say sorry for it," Romney said -- while adding that he didn't remember the alleged incident and therefore couldn't take direct responsibility for it.

Here's what Romney didn't do, however: Simply admit that he was wrong.

It's an unsettling habit for a man who could be the next president. Romney's critics focus on his flip-flopping and shape-shifting, his aristocratic airs, his trickle-down biases. But maybe we should worry more about his inability to admit a mistake and ask for forgiveness, which often indicates intellectual rigidity and a self-certainty that can be dangerous.

As other commentators have argued, it's hard to believe that Romney can't remember an incident that was vivid and upsetting to others who were there. Anybody who's ever been involved in a bullying incident knows it can gnaw at your conscience for years, once it dawns on you how wrong it was. One of Romney's fellow hazers even told the Post, "To this day, it troubles me."

A humbler Romney would have acknowledged his role in the abuse, indicated his regret, and apologized to the victim in a meaningful, direct way. Most Americans would buy that. Who hasn't done stuff as a teenager that they later wish they hadn't?

But Romney seems to have a rationalization for everything. He staunchly defends the infamous 1983 vacation in which he strapped Seamus the family dog to the roof of the car for hundreds of miles, which has riled pet owners. What he could do instead is say, "It seemed like a good idea at the time, but maybe we could have done it differently." Again, people would get that, because just about everybody has done things that seemed like a good idea, but weren't.

As the election ramps up, Romney's equivocations seem to intensify. He's now revising his strong opposition to the 2009 auto-industry bailouts, but not by saying he was wrong when he argued that Detroit should go bankrupt. Instead, he's trying to nuance his way into the hearts of auto-state voters, or else he's simply hoping they won't remember his prior stance.

For years, Romney used a lawn-care company that employed illegal immigrants. But instead of saying that was a mistake, he argued that he never knew about the undocumented workers (and like most suburbanites who benefit from their cheap labor, he most certainly didn't ask). Instead of apologizing, he has promised to prove his opposition to illegal immigrants with a tough new immigration policy.

We could give Romney a pass on this, and attribute his intransigence to the defensive crouch a politician needs to take in a bare-knuckle election such as this one. Yet his self-certainty could be an electoral flaw, and an even bigger leadership liability.

For my new book Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success, I thoroughly researched the attributes that differentiate resilient people able to cope with problems from wallowers who struggle when the going gets tough. Resilient people have a high degree of self-awareness, which allows them to recognize when they're wrong, admit it, change course and get it right the second (or third) time. Wallowers, by contrast, tend to be so convinced they're right that they have trouble imagining another way of doing things. So they stick with failing strategies and policies, because doing otherwise would be an admission of fault that conflicts with their worldview.

This can be a disastrous quality in leaders if they're unlucky enough to be tested by epic events. Herbert Hoover was a prodigy who seemed to do everything right -- until the Depression hit in 1929. When he suddenly encountered a problem he couldn't easily fix, his confidence crumbled and he became politically paralyzed. Robert McNamara, defense secretary during the escalation of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, was one of the Kennedy-era "whiz kids" who couldn't even conceptualize the idea that his policies were a mistake -- until nearly 30 years later, when it was too late.

Mitt Romney has many credentials that make him qualified to be president: a successful career as a business leader, experience as a governor, and a strong commitment to family. One other quality would be reassuring: occasional humility. Nobody is right all the time, and every voter knows it.