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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?

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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."

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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.

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

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