Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

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Saying I’m Sorry

Saying I’m Sorry (Please don’t share with my wife)

The horrific episode of “he said, she said” playing out on the national stage between the President of the United States, a Gold Star Mother and now, the President’s Chief of Staff, is a potent example of the impact a leader’s example has on the culture around them. Two men. One I have deep respect for. Neither can say they are sorry.

In all fairness, I can see where the President was trying to go with “he knew what he signed up for.” I get it. I share a similar awe when I look at my Army friends who willingly put aside the comfortable life, the stability of their families and their personal safety to go into harms way. But it didn’t come out the way he intended. I get that too. I’d bet 60% of the disagreements with my wife are caused by inarticulateness; 99% of those that escalate are a direct results of my stubborn unwillingness to say “I’m sorry.” Stubbornness is not the sole realm of men, but the stereotype exists for a reason.

Here’s what I realized about myself, our culture and leadership watching our President and General Kelly make a bad situation worse: saying I’m sorry doesn’t necessarily mean an admission of guilt, it means the desire to get to the right answer supersedes personal reputation. Saying I’m sorry acknowledges that my actions caused some harm that I may or may not have intended.

We look to our leaders to lead us to the right place. Somewhere between Cro-Magnon, Napoleon, and the current occupant of the Oval Office, we’ve curated this myth of infallibility that no person can live up to and is actively counter productive to solving complex the problems. In refusing to say “I’m sorry,” leaders send the message to subordinates that doing so is either an admission of failure or weakness. The leader shouldn’t/can’t exhibit either one of those unsavory qualities.

This is where the gender gap comes into play. More of my female friends and colleagues are prone to saying “I’m sorry” than the males. In a corporate context, this would be gross displays of un-leader like conduct. Whether intentional or not, leads to being labeled a doer not a leader. It means being passed over for promotions and merit raises. Worse, it can breed a culture where team members, male and female, spend more time promoting personal prestige than moving the team forward.

Here’s what I want out of a leader and the leader I want to be: commitment to the greater success means being big enough to admit my wrongs (intentional or not), breed a culture of owning one’s actions, and the fortitude to reward intellectual honesty over chest puffery. I suspect if the men and women at the top of our organizations pursue this mantra and live it out by their willingness to say they are sorry, we’ll see more productive teams and a greater balance of genders leading them.

Here’s my public pledge to own the outcome of my actions, regardless of intent, by being big enough to say “I’m sorry.”