“I accept full responsibility” is the politically correct statement when mistakes are made. We’ve heard this over and over from CEO’s, government officials, and other leaders. Like many politically correct phrases, it so often rings hollow and is followed by a list of reasons justifying a lack of responsibility for the “mistakes.”
The reasons usually begin with, “If I knew then what I know now…” Yet, so often, a lot was known then that is not being acknowledged now. Words are important and they must match behavior—actions. Accepting responsibility and taking responsibility are two parts of the equation. Taking is a verb, which by definition expresses an act—doing something. Accepting (a transitive verb) responsibility means “to willingly receive, to endure without protest.” Accepting and taking responsibility are different, yet they must be part of a sequence of behavior to restore trust.
This is both a communication and a moral issue. When you communicate accepting and taking responsibility, there is a moral imperative to act congruently with what you said. So, when mistakes were made and the responsible party indicates willingness to accept and take responsibility, there must be action to back it up.
A heartfelt “I’m sorry” is necessary as part of the process. We, the listeners, must feel the genuineness of the apology. But even if we feel an appropriate level of sorrow, more is required before trust can be restored. The next step requires action that is transparent, where accountability is welcomed: “Here’s what I will do…” Then, of course, you must do what you said you would do in a way that is visible and can be verified. But it doesn’t stop there because when trust has been broken, the repair process (if it is successful) takes time—it is a process, not an event.
Whether we are talking about restoring the public trust or personal trust in a relationship, the same process is required. If you give a press conference or sit down to talk with your spouse about your transgressions, you express your sorrow for the specific hurts you caused and discuss your plan for attempting to restore the trust. Beyond that there is a responsibility to check back with those who were hurt to see how your corrective actions are affecting them.
Good leadership, like good friendship and parenting, requires backing up healing words with healing actions. We all make mistakes and must learn how to talk about them and what to do about them. We must not condemn each other for our mistakes. But it is hard not to when real responsibility is not taken. We must hold each other accountable, not to punish but to maintain a level of humanity and accountability for the common good.