“Never apologize…It’s a sign of weakness!” is one of John Wayne’s many famous quotes from the characters he portrayed on film, though no one ever wrote a song about it like Buddy Holly did after he watched “The Searchers” and couldn’t get “That’ll be the day!” out of his head.
The line was given renewed life when NCIS leader Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) repeatedly cited it to his team of investigators on the apparently immortal CBS procedural “NCIS,” as he taught them about life, their duties, and ethics. “Never say you’re sorry…It’s a sign of weakness!” is #8 (on some lists, #6) among 36 “Gibbs’ Rules” that include “If it seems like someone is out to get you, they are” (#30) and “Never date a co-worker” (#14).
Once, not very long ago, I regularly referenced #8 in ethics seminars as one of Gibbs’ worst rules when I discussed “Dr. Z’s Rules,” social scientist Philip Zimbardo’s tips for girding oneself against corruption in the workplace. One of the points on that list is,
“Be willing to say “I was wrong,” “I made a mistake,” and “I’ve changed my mind.” Don’t fear honesty, or to accept the consequences of what is already done.“
I would tell my students that Gibbs and the Duke were wrong, that apologizing for wrongdoing is a sign of strength and integrity, signalling to all that you have the courage and humility to admit when you were wrong, and to move forward.
Then came the advent of social media bullying and Twitter lynch mobs, and I saw how I had underestimated the noodle-content of the spines of politicians, celebrities, CEOs, and others… Continue reading
Jethro Gibbs, the hero of CBS’s long-running hit procedural drama NCIS, enlightens his charges with “Gibbs’ Rules.” As I have mentioned before, I like Gibbs’ Rules, but one of them is almost always dead wrong. The most cited of the rules is #6: “Never apologize — It’s a sign of weakness,” a rule that Gibbs and the show’s writers borrowed from John Wayne’s character in “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.” ( “Never apologize, mister, it. It’s a sign of weakness.”). Sincerely apologizing for genuine harm, mistakes or misconduct is not weakness, but a sign of character, accountability, honesty, courage, respect and fairness.
Hillary Clinton doesn’t believe in accountability, honesty, courage, respect and fairness, so it’s not surprising that she never apologizes. Neither does Donald Trump. It’s a clanging, earsplitting ethics alarm for anyone seeking a leader, for this means that they do not have the integrity or decency to admit genuine wrongdoing, and seek instead to maintain the illusion that they are infallible. It is even possible that they are in the throes of Rationalization #14, Self-validating Virtue, the mark of narcissists. Refusing to apologize is a terrible sign for a leader, a manager, even a friend.
Out of this ominous character flaw has come one of the most remarkable non-apologies in decades. When prompted by MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell to apologize for her mishandling—her intentional mishandling, remember— of the e-mails she sent and received while Secretary of State, the Remarkable, Astounding, Ethics-Defying Candidate Hillary Clinton told her…
“At the end of the day, I am sorry that this has been confusing to people and has raised a lot of questions, but there are answers to all these questions.And I take responsibility, and it wasn’t the best choice.”
Sound the trumpets and summon the sculptors! That is an unethical non apology for the ages: Continue reading
Sam Rubin is no Jethro Gibbs. Unfortunately.
Samuel Jackson’s reckless and unjustified attack on KTLA entertainment reporter Sam Rubin (which, incredibly, continues to be misrepresented by most of the news media, internet and social media) is an excellent example of how relatively trivial incidents can teach important ethics lessons. One of those lessons I did not discuss in the previous post about this episode involves the phenomenon of the gratuitous or needless apology.
To briefly recap: Rubin’s celebrity guest, Samuel L. Jackson, falsely and obnoxiously accused Rubin of confusing him with another black actor, Laurence Fishburne, thus asserting that Rubin 1) thought all blacks looked alike 2) was impliedly a bigot or racist as a result, 3) was unprepared for the interview, and 4) was unprofessional and should lose his job. Rubin apologized twice, first during Jackson’s unprovoked rant (for Rubin had not confused him with Fishburne, and it was Jackson who was confused and unprepared for the interview), and later, to everyone else, after headlines that his “racist mistake” had justly provoked Jackson were being repeated everywhere. Rubin said:
“We start right now with the beauty and the occasional pain of live television. First and foremost, I do know who Samuel L. Jackson is. I’ve interviewed him several times over the years, but never quite like the conversation we just had. I indicated to Samuel that I’d seen him during the Super Bowl, and he thought that I had confused him with the commercial Laurence Fishburne had done for a car company. Of course a “Captain America” ad had also run during the Super Bowl, but I immediately felt so dumb, I didn’t bring that up — and he gave me the shellacking that was well deserved. I pride myself on the fact — that unlike a lot of people who do this kind of work — more often than not, I really do know what I’m talking about. But I didn’t 30 minutes ago, and I’m really embarrassed about it, and I very much apologize to Samuel L. Jackson and anyone else who was offended for what was a very amateur mistake.”
This kind of apology, a coerced, false apology for conduct that warrants no apology, regret or forgiveness at all, does not appear on the Ethics Alarms Apology Scale, because while it looks and sounds like an apology, it is something else entirely. The Apology Scale ranks the intent, sincerity, honesty and effectiveness of apologies for actual wrongdoing or harm. The coerced and false apology is wrongdoing that causes harm, and is the product of wrongdoing itself. Continue reading