Richard Cohen has an excellent essay on accountability which is well worth a read. He draws some interesting analogies between the “Bushies” and other countries’ governments like Britain or Japan. His thesis is correct. If a Japanese official had been cornered by the blunders made by Rumsfeld or even Bush himself, the honorable thing to do would have been to resign. But no one in the Bush administration is even acting remotely contrite.
But I think we need to be fair to the Bushies. (Can you believe I wrote that?) It’s true that the Bushies (I think I like that term!) are smug and righteous even in the face of apparent failure. But culturally, that’s America. I don’t care if you look to regional governments, corporations, or the local PTA, the same behavior exists everywhere. “Failure is not an option.” In the face of failure, the average American will spin the truth, shift blame to someone else, or even lie outright to avoid the perception that he failed. There needs to be a way to “save face” in order to move on.
The trouble is, that saving face doesn’t really help to avoid future such failures. If you keep ducking bullets, you begin to think you’re bulletproof. This can actually encourage more reckless behavior. And speaking of death spirals, the blame game has the same end result. Blame is shifted until it lands on someone who can’t defend themselves, and they take the fall. This not only encourages the bulletproof, but it makes the innocent victims who keep getting shot cynical and resigned so that they ultimately disengage. None of this is healthy.
As a culture, we need to learn accountability, humility, and failure. Everyone fails. From time to time, you just blow it. Simple as that. Sometimes those things are minor, and sometimes they result in losses of life, money, or careers. But I suspect the same people who would never offer their resignation over a public screw-up, are the same ones who would never admit to their spouse they over reacted about her not having beer in the fridge. These are patterns of behavior.
And frankly, these are patterns we reinforce through media stereotypes and even teach our children. This is especially so for men. As a culture, we revere the old Clint Eastwood cliche`. The confident, no fear, indefatigable, never back down, ain’t gonna take crap from nobody tough guy. Not the sort of guy you’d expect to see begging forgiveness. In fact, we view those guys as weak, wimpy, milquetoast, and maybe even pathetic. Which role model would you aspire towards?
And women (you didn’t think you’d get off that easy, did you?) play right into this. As mothers or lovers, your fascination with strength, power, and confidence only serve to validate the attitude that men should never show weakness or failure. At least not men who expect the admiration and respect of a woman (which may well be more of a motivator for men than you realize). Ironically, it’s these same women who complain their men are emotionally distant and never compromise on anything.
Somewhere in the middle is this ideal sort of man who is tender and tough all at once. But you have to understand, that’s a really hard line for most of us to walk. To the extent that any of us pull it off well, it is probably because a “tough guy” comes to realize that contrition, apology, and compromise are powerful situational tactics in some cases. And this is something which can be taught. We already do this to some degree. If you son has ever said, “I’m sorry,” after whacking his brother, you’ve probably pointed out that he didn’t sound too sincere. When he took another pass at the utterance, do you think he was really more contrite, or did he just learn to sound that way?
And somehow this leads us to Eastern philosophy. Eastern philosophy teaches us to be one with our environment. To gently bend the forces of nature or of a situation to our advantage. Think sailing as opposed to power boats. Think Karate instead of boxing. The Japanese official who resigns is not viewed as weak. He preserves his honor. And the honorable are viewed as strong, and live to play another day. There is power in contrition. Positioned that way, the manliest man among us can accept it. And through it, he will become more effective, and (perhaps counterintuitively) more powerful.