Being Wrong

One recent week, I had occasion to say publicly I’d been wrong — not once but twice. I like to think, each time, that it’ll be the last time I have to do that. But, if past performance is the best predictor of future behavior, then the likelihood is that I will need to publicly admit to being wrong again in the not-too-distant future.

I used to think such admissions were momentous occasions to be avoided, that they reflected some fundamental problem that could have been avoided. Better planning, more precision, be more careful, those were the answers. Sure, that will all help improve things. But more recently, I see public apologies differently, as an increasing part of public life. I believe this is for the best.

The conventional wisdom, which still holds sway with many, is that an admission of error is to be shunned. Even if forced to retract something, or (worse yet) apologize, it’s always “mistakes were made,” or there was an “appearance of impropriety.” Why is it so hard to just ‘fess up and get on with things? While it can be very painful, it’s not the end of the world; just try harder next time.

My good friend Rich Harwood likes to say that leading in public life takes courage and humility — courage to place a stake in the ground, and humility to know that, later, you will more than likely have to publicly pick it up and move it.

The Internet, and the transparency it has driven, has accelerated this. Statements get made, articles get published, and responses appear immediately. Things that are far off the mark increasingly stand out, and the original speakers will often need to make corrections, issue retractions. The ability — the imperative — to do this is one of the chief differences between the “old” guard of journalism and the “new.” Think of CBS’s response to what is now known as “Rathergate“: lengthy refusal to admit that key documents in one of its high-profile stories were likely forged. Digging their heels into the ground, they increasingly opened themselves to criticism. By contrast, in one of my recent episodes of contrition, my article was updated based on feedback received the same day it was originally published. I don’t hold this up to point out how groovy I am personally, but instead to show this as an example of what a different approach to public life might look like.

But, maybe it’s ingrained in people not to admit mistakes. When hiring someone, I have a favorite interview question. I ask them to describe something that was a failure. I make sure to say the word, “failure,” too. People have a hard time with that one; they typically don’t want to point to anything they did that might have been a mistake.

My subjects will squirm and then discuss situations that went awry due to others’ idiocy, or due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. They will almost never say, “I did such-and-so, and later saw that this was a bonehead move, so instead I did this-and-that. Here’s what I learned.” Maybe it’s too much to ask for someone to admit error in an interview situation. No one has ever asked me that in an interview; maybe I couldn’t answer. But if someone ever gives me a straight answer to that question, I am hiring them on the spot.

I like to believe that, as communications technologies continue to erode the barriers between the opiners and the opined-to, and between the leaders and the led, that we will see more and more instances of public correction. It is already expected in many quarters, and the holdouts are slowly becoming fewer in number. It may be a bitter pill, but it is also strong medicine in public life. It erases many divisions, so that people can hear one another better.

Since we are all likely to be wrong not once but many times, we all will have a chance to be part of the movement away from the bunker mentality and towards a more productive way of relating in public life.

The question is whether we will find the guts to follow it. I fall short more than I would like to admit. How about you?

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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