01/12/2014 10:36 am ET Updated Mar 14, 2014

Leadership and the Apology

National political figures have been doing a lot of apologizing recently. In October, President Obama apologized for the disastrous roll-out of the website. Just recently, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie apologized for what was quickly called "bridgegate," the deliberate closure of two of three lanes from New Jersey into Manhattan over the George Washington Bridge. The four-day closure, it appears, was political payback concocted by some of Christie's top aides to penalize the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not backing the governor in his recent re-election campaign.

Such apologies are expected by citizens and astute political moves by office-holders. Even if the apology does not end the criticism or the attendant investigations (and it never does), it shows the leader owning up to the failings of his administration. In a press conference, Christie said he was "embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team."

Some leaders, of course, never apologize, and they may suffer the worst of fates. President Johnson never apologized for misleading the public into thinking he would not escalate the war in Vietnam, and eventually chose not to run for a second term. President Nixon never acknowledged the dramatic failure of his leadership and was forced to resign.

But among those who do apologize, the focus seems to be on accepting responsibility for the failure but not acknowledging the personal mistakes of thinking or action that led to it. At Christie's press conference, he also said that "I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution." That he should have had some knowledge, so that he could have stopped it, does not appear to have occurred to him.

Similarly, President Obama did not acknowledge that either he chose the wrong people to develop the website or failed to adequately manage the process that was so central to the success of his signature domestic endeavor. While Governor Christie did fire one of his closest aides (Obama did not), he does not seem to have acknowledged that there existed among some of them a vendetta culture that as their leader he helped create or to which he was tone-deaf.

Leadership is not a solitary act. Leaders succeed or fail through how well they manage and through the culture they create in their organizations. This includes the quality of their personnel selections and the ethical climate they foster among subordinates. Obama had the vision but not the managerial savvy to assure its success. Christie's no-nonsense, blunt style either fostered a culture of political payback or led some of his closest advisers to assume that such behavior was acceptable.

The apology means little if it is simply a means to cauterize a political wound. President Kennedy figured this out after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. His initial comments were reminiscent of Harry Truman's "the buck stops here." In a press conference, Kennedy acknowledged that: "There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan ... Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I'm the responsible officer of the government..."

That was the apology. But it's what he did next that mattered. "How could I have been so stupid?," Kennedy asked himself. Furious at the CIA for running a shoddy operation while assuring him of its success, he forced out key leaders, including CIA Director Allen Dulles, in less than a year. He also recognized that he could not simply take military assurances for granted, telling Washington Post journalist and friend Ben Bradlee: "The first advice I'm going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn."

He supported two studies on the flawed decision making that led to the Bay of Pigs, and he did not absolve himself. He met with former President Eisenhower, who launched the planning for removing Castro, and realized from their conversation that his management approach needed an overhaul. Eisenhower made notes on their meeting. "He had no idea of the complexity of the job," Eisenhower wrote. Kennedy, he felt, "looked upon the Presidency as not only a very personal thing, but as an institution that one man could handle with an assistant here and another there." Eisenhower asked Kennedy: "Mr. President, before you approved this plan did you have everybody in front of you debating the thing so you got pros and cons yourself and then made your decision, or did you see these people one at a time?" Kennedy said that he did not have a full meeting of the National Security Council. As a result, reservations about the invasion were never surfaced and discussed -- and individuals who might have spoken up had he used a different process remained silent.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis just 18 months later, Kennedy reaped the benefit of his self-criticism and improved managerial approach. He put together a far more diverse (not just a CIA/military) team of advisers, deliberately forced options to be aired and debated, accepted no easy assurances of military or diplomatic success, and created a decision making atmosphere that invited people to speak frankly to, and disagree with, him. The result was strategic success. With success, there is no need to apologize.

It may be too much to ask (though it would be refreshing) for a president or a governor to publicly acknowledge they need lessons in managing a bureaucracy or that they need to change the organizational (including ethical) culture they have created and/or the decision making process they use. But until we see some evidence that they have learned from their mistakes and improved their performance, we should remain skeptical about the meaning or value of an apology. As in our personal lives, an apology without a subsequent change in behavior just deepens the disappointment and increases the distrust.