Never apologize. Never explain.

Never apologize. Never explain.

The first time I heard this phrase, it was from the CEO of a company I was working for. I'd gone up to the desk of my manager, and I had apologized for a bugs that we'd deployed the latest version of the website. I was explaining that we were in the process of deploying a fix for the issue.

That's when our CEO strode up and made the above declaration. I must have looked baffled, since he proceeded to tell me that he was given that advice when he was getting started in business and it had always served him well.

I was baffled. Almost twenty years later, I'm still baffled.

So I decided to look into the phrase to get an understanding of it.

The first thing I can across was a Ask MetaFilter post that reported that John Wayne once spoke these lines in a She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. This didn't surprise me. Ironically, the quote that John Wayne delivered was:

Never apologize. Never explain. It's a sign of weakness.

While this makes sense coming from a John Wayne character, I'm still baffled that people actually believe this. So I kept looking.

The quote has been variously attributed to everyone from Winston Churchill to Katherine Hepburn, but it appears that it can be traced back to either Benjamin Jowett or Benjamin Disreali (it's all about the Benjamins, apparently). Jowett, an nineteenth century Oxford don, apparently advised his students:

Never apologise. Never explain. Get it over with and let them howl.

Disreali's formulation was slightly different:

Never complain and never explain.

Everything I've read on the reasons for following these various formulations, seem to focus on one thing: maintaining power.

Unfortunately, this focus often works against improvement. The best teams I have worked with have been made up of people who apologise without hesitation. Not as a defence mechanism, as some people have insisted, but in order to find a better way.

Of course, the best place to be is "I screwed up, and I'm already working on fixing it." Much harder is "I screwed up, and I need your help to figure out how to put it right."

And that is what I've seen amazing teams do again and again. They take responsibility for their mistakes. They use that as the fist step to figure out a better way. Not on their own, but in collaboration with the rest of the team.

More to the point, the ability to admit mistakes seems to be me to be fundamental to building a team. We are all uniquely flawed. A good team is one that knows eachother's strengths and weaknesses. Instead of taking advantage of these weaknesses for personal gain, a good team knows their own and their teammates weaknesses. Therefore, they also know which of their strengths have the most value to their teammates.

The most dysfunctional teams I've seen are those who are terrified of making mistakes, and are therefore unlikely to own up to them. Instead, they're likely to point the finger at others at the first opportunity. This often comes from the top. From a "leader" who needs to be seen as an iron-willed and infallible leader of lesser mortals.

One of the articles I came across was by Renee Garfinkle, who had this to say:

Instinct pulls us toward the narcissistic leader on whom we can project our wish to be larger than life. Maturity leads us toward the humble leader who is competent and wise. As President Eisenhower put it, “you do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”

We must choose our leaders with care and discernment. Communities get the leaders they deserve.

I did come across some articles defending the "never apologize" approach, but these were mostly composed of Brietbart and Daily Stormer paeans to the current president. These aren't something I want to quote or link to.

I'd like to suggest a more accurate formulation of this unfortunate aphorism:

Never apologise. Never explain. Never improve.

I'll finish by saying that the people who I've been most impressed by are those who don't hesitate to admit their mistakes. These are the people who have earned my trust through their strength and courage, their willingness to appear "weak" in order to work towards a better outcome. The true weaklings are the giants-in-their-own-mind who are unable to do this and therefore keep themselves and their followers on a steady course towards disaster.

Queries permalink

  • I haven't written about insincere apologies here. I think everyone knows these when they hear them, but I'd like to look more into what distinguishes these from a genuine apology.
  • Similarly, there is also a tendency to over-explain in a way that avoids anyone else suggesting a possible solution to a problem. How can this be avoided? I suspect using something like the five whys could help in this situation.
  • I may agree with the "never complain" part of the Disreali version of this. I suppose it depends on how you define complaining. If it's simply identifying a problem, then this is counterproductive. If it means going around pissed off and talking about it without trying to find a way to understand and solve the problem, then I most certainly agree. It would be interesting to find out if there is any context behind the Disrali quote.