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Mea Culpa – Is it really better to ask for forgiveness?

The number of “apology ads” I’ve seen on TV in the last month is astounding. It’s caused me to wonder – as a company, is it really better to ask for forgiveness from your customers than to do the right thing, or behave the right way, to begin with? Is the message we are learning “do your own thing, until you get caught, and then apologize and carry on as usual?”

Wells Fargo is apologizing for violating our trust by opening over 2 million fake accounts in order to hit their sales goals. One of their ads (seen here)   begins by saying “We know the value of trust…” later in the commercial they promise they are “holding ourselves accountable to find and fix issues proactively…” Finally, they declare that they are halting the business process (sales goals for branches) that caused the bad-behavior in the first place.

Facebook apologized for unknowingly allowing the personal information of tens of millions of users to be leaked and/or manipulated by advertising; possibly impacting the 2016 US elections. In their apology ads the company says it will do “more” to make you feel safe and protect your privacy.”

In Uber’s apology ad, the new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi , looks straight in to the camera and says “we have new leadership and a new culture.” He states that as a company, “one of our values is to always do the right thing.” Is that a new thing, which started with you, Dara? Or was that always in place but now you’ll take it seriously?

Apologies that Miss the Mark

Wells Fargo stating it has ended the business process that caused the “problem” is simply addressing the symptom – what is the root cause of an organization that is unethical, views cheating as necessary to maintain one’s job, and has little regard for its customers?

In the case of Facebook and Uber, their ads don’t even really claim responsibility; they simply say “Oops, something went south. We’ll fix it.” And Uber’s “responsible CEO” made no appearance at all – they sent out the new guy to apologize for past transgressions.

Here’s Rolling Stone’s take on the limp apologies:

Hi, America. We were awesome for a long time. Here are some culturally representative shots of people like you smiling and enjoying our services. After repeated denials, we recently had to admit to violating your trust, but the unelucidated bad thing doesn’t have to come between us. We promise: we fixed [all] that. You will now wake up feeling refreshed in 3,2,1…

The Burning Question

What role did leadership play in creating these damages in the first place? And what role could leadership development play to get these companies back on track? Teaching individuals to be better leaders after the fact is not the best approach; what about the future leaders of these companies? When does their development begin? And more broadly, of course, the future leaders of any company, because a scandal or business transgression could indeed happen to any company.

Go Forward

A multi-faceted leadership development curriculum – offered over the long-term, to everyone in the organization – would benefit from a groundswell of workers who understand ethics, risk, team work, communication, self-management and more. If companies are not solely reliant on leaders to set the course, then everyone is a leader. That’s what we need going forward.