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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

'The most dreaded knowledge'


"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." This adage from philosopher George Santayana comes to mind anytime a business, political, or personal scandal unfolds. All too often those in high places who have made a mistake, typically a moral misjudgment, spend too much time denying or minimizing it rather than stepping up and acting as leaders. The cover up always seems worse than the misstep.

There was no cover up in the Tiger Woods case. While this presser should have occurred months earlier, Tiger seemed forthright and humble in his first press conference since the scandal over his many mistresses transpired. He acknowledged his bad behavior and did not seek to make excuses. He was also candid, admitting that he had more rehab work to do and that he intended to do his best to make up for his transgressions.

Tiger's performance largely followed a proven formula for public redemption, something I call the "5 A" method of apology-making. In part this formula is one I have borrowed in part from professor Paula Caproni's book, The Practical Coach.

And yes I'll be the first to admit that reducing recovery from a moral lapse to a five-step process may seem trite to some, but having witnessed so many misdeeds turn more terrible when mishandled, following such a process may just be what's needed for recovery.

The first "A" is accountability, and it is the cornerstone. Without assuming consequences for actions there can be no forgiveness and no healing process. The reason that the hierarchy in Catholic Church has been so vilified is because it acted without accountability. It put perpetrator before parishioner; pedophile priests were treated more as victims than the children they had molested. Secondly the Church acted as if it were more important to avoid scandal rather than help the helpless, the children who had been harmed. No accountability. No forgiveness. From accountability flows the rest of the process.

Assume responsibility. Those in charge assume that there has been wrongdoing. As head of the Church, and earlier as head of the committee investigating priest abuse cases, Pope Benedict is responsible for how the Church is managing the sex abuse scandal. Leaders need to assert authority but such authority rests on being responsible for outcomes.

Acknowledge wrongdoing. Doing so in public, if you are a leader of an organization, or someone like Tiger who is the public face for a sport and his sponsors, demonstrates that you understand you have done wrong. Be big about it and admit what you have done wrong. Or if you are not personally culpable, admit that what others in your organization have done is wrong. This is not finger-pointing; it's a demonstration of ownership.

Apologize. Saying you are sorry is important. It is the acknowledgment of wrong-doing. It is the statement that you have hurt someone else and for that reason, you do need to apologize. Pope Benedict, to his credit, did apologize to victims of priestly sexual abuse when he visited the U.S. a few years ago. Since then, however, he has been strangely silent on the apology front.

Make amends. Words are important, but they are cheap. Actions are what matters. Elin Woods, whom Tiger cited in his solo statement in February, said that as his wife she would measure Tiger's intentions not by what he said, but rather by what he did. Each leader needs to make amends in ways that are appropriate to victims. They must seek to make the victims whole again. In cases of betrayal of trust, this is never wholly possible but the transgressor must try to do so. Living the right example is the first step in the amends process.

These five A's do lead to another important aspect of leadership: authenticity. Genuine connection between leader and follower depends upon honesty and truth. Failure to acknowledge mistakes or apologize undermines followers' faith in the people who are in charge. And for that reason, a leader who avoids accountability is no leader; he or she is simply a person with a title but no moral authority.

Our second president, and at times a self-appointed moral compass for the Founding Fathers, wrote: "The people have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge -- I mean of the character and conduct of their rulers." Good advice for any leader to heed when they or their organization goes astray.

By John Baldoni

 |  April 6, 2010; 5:55 AM ET
Category:  Wrong-Doing Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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