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Ruth Sherman Headshot

Apology Is a Leadership Skill

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After being caught in a series of statements that allowed and encouraged people to believe he served in Vietnam, even though he honorably served in the Marine Corps Reserves during that time, Connecticut Attorney General and Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Richard Blumenthal is understandably embarrassed. Yet, he has not been able to offer a heartfelt apology for his transgressions. Instead, he (or possibly, a member of his staff) emailed one to the Hartford Courant after a week or so had already passed and after being publicly asked by the paper whether it would be forthcoming. (Connecticut is my state.)

This was not very satisfying. While the right words and active voice were used -- "I've made mistakes and I'm sorry. I truly regret offending anyone" -- because it was written instead of spoken, the impact was greatly diminished. As I tell my clients all the time, writing and speaking are different. In writing, the meaning is in the words on the page. It is received and processed through the brain's visual centers and further parsed for definition and syntax. There are no channels in writing for the myriad nonverbal cues inherent in speaking.

On the other hand, speaking is received and processed through the brain's auditory centers, areas that discern meaning primarily from the way something sounds. We make split second evaluations based on pitch and volume, among other factors. And, if we are watching someone speak, we have the added benefit of observing body language, sometimes obvious, but just as often a barely perceptible flick of an eyebrow, twitch of a mouth, etc., that help us answer the ultimate question: Do I trust that person?

By handling it the way he did, Mr. Blumenthal prevented the public from seeing if there was any pain in his face, if his eyes were downcast, shoulders a bit slumped, if he looked sorry or ashamed. In addition, by using the inherent distance writing affords, he ironically missed another opportunity to show courage, exacerbating the disconnect between Blumenthal, the upstanding, values-driven Attorney General and Blumenthal, the fibber, as well as widen the chasm with the public.

Apologizing well, authentically, and from the heart is difficult and should be. People want to forgive, but they need an invitation.

To offer a heartfelt apology, one that is believable, takes a certain amount of self-reflection. You need to be able to look at yourself and figure out why you did it, whatever "it" is. The ability to reflect, unfortunately, is not something we are necessarily taught as we grow up and is not encouraged in our society. I still don't feel that Mr. Blumenthal believes he did anything wrong and that, itself, is wrong.

We all lie from time to time. Richard Blumenthal did not commit a crime. He did not lie about someone else. He lied about himself, aggrandizing himself, which he meant to do. It may have been unconscious, but it was intentional. It was intentional because it helped him politically and he's an ambitious politician. He's still ahead in the polls and fortunately for him, his opponent, Linda McMahon, has plenty of baggage of her own. Still, summers in Connecticut are long and hot.

Apology is an extraordinarily powerful communication skill, a way to show accountability and take ownership, a way to make an emotional connection, and a mark of leadership. The ability to deliver a good one is a quality we wish for in our elected officials, but, too often, don't get.

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