Go Awkward Early

A random read through the newspaper yielded a number of stories of people who had made mistakes that put them awkward situations when revealed. The stories themselves are not particularly interesting, other than the Schadenfreude I experience  (and am not proud of)  in reading of the missteps of others…especially the rich, famous and/or powerful.

Tiger Wood’s auto drama, the seemingly endless parade of Ponzi schemers, the pilots of Northwest 188 who overshot Minneapolis,…what got my attention was not so much the events themselves, but the way the protagonists responded when the glare of the Public Flashlight was directed toward them.

Mr Woods has for the most part responded with stoic silence. And while I agree with Ruth Marcus’ opinion piece that knowing the details of what happened is really not in the public interest, his response seems to be helping to keep the story alive.

Tom Petters, the most notorious (at least, ’round these parts) accused scam artist, now has his fate in the hands of a jury. His courtroom response to the charges has been “I was duped! It’s not my fault! It’s those other people who I trusted!”. No doubt there are legal reasons for that tack, but in the court of public opinion (okay, my court anyway) that rings hollow. This was a man all too eager to take the accolades of an adoring public and press, bask in the glow of his public persona as Captain of Industry, Self-Made Man and Philanthropist Non-Pariel. Yet now, his defense is that he was a hapless dupe who didn’t really know what was going on in the largest and most critical parts of his company. Well, which is it? Master of The Universe or Puppet of the Evil Minions? Can’t be both, Mr. Petters.

And then there are those two flyboys who apparently got so distracted that they forgot to land in Minneapolis. I listened to and read the transcripts of the communications between air traffic controllers and Flight 188, and was struck by the pilot’s response when asked for an explanation of what happened:

CONTROLLER: “Do you have time to give a brief explanation on what happened?”

PILOT: “Ah (just) cockpit distractions that’s all I can say.”

To my ears, he sounded defensive and embarrassed, and seemed to want to avoid talking about it. Sure, it was probably not the best time for a complete description of what had happened, but still…where was the acknowledgement that he and his partner had committed a serious mistake?

The common theme in all of these stories is that, when faced with the disclosure of our failings, we humans generally respond with denial, often accompanied by a cover-up.

If you were around during the late 1960s, you remember Watergate: operatives of Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect The President (the aptly named CREEP) hired some guys to break into the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate office complex. Most people (me included) don’t remember the details of the original crime, like what they were looking for or were trying to accomplish. But we all remember the cover-up that resulted in the resignation of the President and several prison sentences.

The lesson was clear: the cover-up is always worse than the original crime. In the long list the dirty tricks that Segretti, Chapin and the rest of the CREEP creeps were responsible for, the Watergate break-in was not the worst thing they did. The faked letters during the 1972 Democratic Primary season were much more despicable, if not as criminal.

And yet, we humans always try to dodge, slip or otherwise avoid the appropriate mea culpa when our sins are exposed. Intellectually, we all know that it’s better to just cop to the mistake, fall on our sword, beg for forgiveness and move on. But we don’t. Until we have no other choice.

I know that in my case the shame and embarrassment of having my humanity revealed is often the driving force toward covering up. Even though I know…I absolutely know…that doesn’t work. Eventually, all is revealed. And by then, the damage worsens exponentially.

Maybe it’s the fear of being exposed as being not who we seem to be…you know, perfect? In my case, I suspect that my fear of being exposed to others is less at work than my fear of being exposed to myself.

A couple of years ago I got a great piece of advice from a client: “Go awkward early.” I try to remember that if I am feeling awkward, it’s better to get it out in the open right then. Awkward is not fine wine…it doesn’t get better with age.

Elton John was right: “sorry” does indeed seem to be hardest word. And yet, it can be the key to moving on and learning from our inevitable slips.

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