Skip to main content

Real leaders don't 'double-down'

By Marsha Sampson Johnson, Special to CNN
updated 7:07 PM EDT, Tue September 25, 2012
Marsha Johnson says it's been a season of
Marsha Johnson says it's been a season of "doubling-down," the term politicians have adopted to avoid taking blame for misstatements and mistakes.
  • Marsha Johnson: This election season, it seems like politicians are continually "doubling-down"
  • She says this term is meant to seem strong, but just avoids fessing up
  • She says we like strong leaders, but want them to be self-aware; it's not weak to admit flaws
  • Johnson: The longer a leader takes to admit flaw, the more some will turn against them

Editor's note: Marsha Sampson Johnson advocates for full inclusion of women and people of color in all work environments in her work as a writer and speaker. She is a retired senior executive from a Fortune 500 company and has held a variety of executive positions, including in talent management, human resources and corporate diversity.

(CNN) -- Can anyone out there tell me how many times during this presidential election cycle the term "double-down" has been used? My old-school hash mark technique is thoroughly inadequate to keep up with the count. It seems that not a day goes by without my hearing or reading, sometimes multiple times, the term "double-down." One side or the other side makes a crazy statement and we wait for an "apology," for someone to say I did not have all the information or I made a mistake or I should never have said that.

Do we get it? We get doubling-down. We get Mitt Romney and Republican surrogates holding firm and "doubling-down" on factually flawed statements about the tragedy in Libya. We get them "doubling down" on bizarre comments about 47% of Americans feeling entitled. No apologies. Just doubling down.

When I first noticed this term, I thought OK, they are standing firm -- with emphasis. It did not seem a bad term, especially when used as a matter of one's convictions, a confident playing of the hand one has been dealt. After all, being flaky or bending with every wind is not a good thing. But we are talking about leadership here! The leadership of a country, of a free people, of a complex, critical and changing world. How does "double-down" fit in these contexts?

Opinion: The true difference between Obama, Romney

Marsha Johnson
Marsha Johnson

Firm, principled and resolute leaders are fine. But we also like our leaders to be human -- flaws and all-- self-aware in their imperfections. They are more trustworthy that way. Jonathan Lloyd wrote an article late last year for the NBC Los Angeles website entitled "Famous Apologies or Nonapologies."

The top 10 in recent times, according to Lloyd, include Bill Clinton, 1998; Jimmy Swaggart, 1998; Olympian Marion Jones, 2007; Sen. Larry Craig, 2007; Gov. Eliot Spitzer, 2008; and Tiger Woods, 2010, among others. If you are breathing, you should have listened to or heard of one or more of these apologies and know how you reacted to them.

While you may not agree with the list, you must agree they were pretty famous "please forgive me's." Some were from leaders; some worked and some did not. But they all were an attempt to close the circle on a transgression and regain trust, something we expect of a well-raised child. And a responsible adult.

Romney explains fundraiser video
Romney unapologetic despite remarks

Which brings me to what my Mama and Daddy taught me: "When you mess up fess up." Tell the truth and tell them before they find out. They taught me that punishment would not go away, but would be far less severe if I told the truth about what happened and how or why I veered off the charted course.

My parents believed in corporal punishment, so I got the message with great clarity. From where does this new notion of doubling-down come? Anyone who doubles-down on what everyone knows (or will soon find out to be) ill-informed, offensive or untenable positions, is either a fool or believes everyone else is. Further, what kind of leader molds himself or herself in perfection and cements his or her thinking into antiquity?

A few years ago Linda Stamato wrote an article for the Ivey Business Journal entitled: "Should Business Leaders Apologize? Why, When, and How an Apology Matters." One quote from the piece is most appropriate during this election season:

"Questions of timing are critical. The longer it takes a business leader or a section manager, for example, to acknowledge his or her mistake, the more likely the undecided folks will turn against him or her. Business leaders need to understand that if, in the end, it is going to be disclosed that they have erred, it's better to own up as quickly as possible in order to have a hand in making repairs.

"To acknowledge a mistake is to assert secure leadership; to take responsibility and prescribe a corrective course of action is wise management. Taking responsibility for an error earns the privilege of being forgiven, and thus granted a second chance."

Opinion: How Romney really feels about Republicans

Here are some other takes on the issue that our politicians might do well to read. Erika Andersen's article for Forbes Magazine entitiled "Courageous Leaders Don't Make Excuses ... They Apologize." And for the one-minute manager fans, Tom Peters has a segment on YouTube called "Leadership: The Power of the Apology," in which he encourages us to become students of apology. He says, "Learning how to apologize effectively is the real essence of strategic strength."

Let's reposition the notion of apology and give it the significance in our political discourse it rightly deserves. Apology must not become a dirty word. The ability to apologize is a sign of leadership strength, not weakness. It communicates humility and acknowledges the value of others. It is a skill to be studied, an art to be mastered. It heals and strengthens individuals, communities and nations.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marsha Sampson Johnson.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 10:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.