Mea Culpa: The Way to “Man Up”
By Ken Walker-
When President Obama offered his “mea culpa” for people losing insurance coverage amid health care reform, it didn’t necessarily make the situation any better. Indeed, as I predicted, his comments were immediately interpreted, parsed, and picked apart for their supposed insincerity.
Still, none of this changes the fact that offering an apology helped mitigate what could have been a worse disaster had he insisted everything was fine. (When Jay Leno is poking fun at the inefficiency of health care, everything is not fine.)
“Mea culpa” is Latin meaning: “I am the culprit; I am to blame.” As Lee Buck explains in Tapping Your Secret Source of Power, it means when a person makes a mistake, he goes to the person it most affects and admits blame.
In this case, the president apologized to everyone affected on national TV. Regardless of what you think about him or his policies, it takes a man with guts to admit error in such a forum.
The thing that still fascinates me about Buck’s book is its relevance nearly 30 years after publication.
“The trouble is, admitting blame is not exactly a favorite pastime of most people,” Buck writes. “Ducking the blame, pointing a finger at someone else, is one of the most crippling weaknesses in our society.
“A vital shipment is delayed, a valuable customer lost, an accounting mistake costs a firm thousands of dollars. And usually the one responsible spends more time and effort proving he wasn’t to blame than he could have spent rectifying the error.”
Finger pointing and blame casting are still endemic in our society. While it may be easy to single out politicians in Washington, D.C., the uncomfortable truth is the people we send to the nation’s capital are in essence a reflection of those who put them in office.
Fresh and Inspiring
The unwillingness to accept blame is so common that Buck notes how people instinctively like and trust leaders who are willing to accept responsibility when things go wrong: “There is something fresh and inspiring about such an individual.”
However, it just isn’t leaders who can benefit from following this principle.
I have seen it in real life, on both the receiving and giving end.
The first happened several years after I read Buck’s book. To show what a trifling matter it was, I can’t even remember exactly what happened. But I got angry when someone at the daily newspaper messed up something involving my subscription. The person who answered promised someone would call back.
When the circulation director did, the first thing he said after I aired my grievance was, “We’re sorry.” Pop! My anger fizzled like an ice cube on the sidewalk in mid-July.
Offering a Mea Culpa
That wasn’t a problem until toward the end of one session. As the speaker’s wife shared some remarks, the buzz behind me grew in intensity. Finally losing my cool at difficulty hearing and what I saw as disrespect to the speaker, I turned around and growled loudly, “There’s somebody up there talking.”
Now, one could argue that I had the guts to do what needed to be done. Maybe, but it could have been done in a much quieter and courteous way.
Sure enough, someone took offense. Soon after, during a break, a man approached me with anger on his face. Shaking his finger in mine, he said I shouldn’t have yelled at everyone.
Knowing I was wrong, I replied, “You’re right. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
The fizz went out of him just like it had when that circulation director apologized to me.
“What?” he said. “Well, okay.” Then he turned around and walked away.
In that instant, I was glad I had learned the principle of “mea culpa.” It would do our society worlds of good if more people took Buck’s message to heart.