Stupidity Begets Stupidity
Obama's handling of the Gates-Crowley affair demonstrated many of his best leadership attributes. He showed that he learns and adapts rather than digging in defensively or dismissively. He demonstrated his conviction that differences and conflicts don't define people, and that people can rise above those differences and conflicts. And he demonstrated the humility of admitting you're wrong, even when you are kind of right. Apparently stupid begets stupid.
I think it is important amid the distortions to step back and read what the president originally said: "I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact."
Upon first hearing it, I thought it was inelegant but not unreasonable. What was unreasonable was the way the media threw health care under the bus and obsessed on the "gaffe" for the next week. Despite his apology and attempt at reconciliation, Glenn Beck called him racist, the news media fascinated on every moment of the "beer summit" (and labeled it so), Fox attacked the lack of American beers (they suggested Coors which is ironically part of Miller/Coors - a joint venture of South African Brewery and the Canadian Molson Coors), and MADD argued with the liquor lobby over the appropriateness of "beer summits."
It all reminded me of Bill Maher's great joke that "Sonia Sotomayor said that a wise Latina judge would make better rulings than a white male, and then Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich opened their mouths and proved her point." The amazing thing about these gaffes, even stupid ones, is that the responses only escalate the stupidity.
The leadership challenge here has to do with mistakes. Owning mistakes is critical for leaders because it helps us learn and innovate, build more trusting and authentic relationships, and demonstrate that we are accountable. The reality is that our mistakes aren't secrets, so when we don't own them we have both failed at something and lied by omission about it.
There are three levels of owning mistakes: (1) owning mistakes that we ourselves made; (2) taking responsibility for a mistake made by our team or someone we manage; and (c) owning a mistake we don't really think is a mistake. That last one is the hardest, and I personally believe that is what the president did here. If I were in his shoes, I would have the urge to be defensive about what I said or dismissive about the distorted stupidity that resulted from what I said.
The president instead blended confidence and humility by owning it and seeking to fix it, despite the frustration he must feel knowing that from the arrest forward, it was all pretty stupid.
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