Why 'sorry' isn't in many CEOs' vocabularies anymore

Elected officials in the past have said "I'm sorry" for everything from marital affairs to cross-dressing to corruption, and CEOs tossed around apologies like horseshoes at the company picnic.

Not anymore. As the world comes to grips with the biggest financial crisis in seven decades, the mea culpa machine has ground to a halt. Apologies, encouraged in recent years by the crisis-management industry, have dried up — even apologies deployed as a business or political strategy.

Legal concerns weigh heavily on any words that might be construed as an admission of guilt. But also weighing heavily is the silence from politicians, regulators and past and present CEOs at Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Bear Stearns, Countrywide Financial, Merrill Lynch and Washington Mutual. It's been clear for weeks that the financial crisis has dammed the free flow of credit. But with each passing day, it's also appears that the crisis has likewise dammed the free flow of taking responsibility.

When Lehman Bros. CEO Richard Fuld testified on Capitol Hill this month, members of Congress grilled him to own up. Fuld said he takes full responsibility for his decisions, that he "felt horrible about it," but that the largest bankruptcy in history was due to circumstances beyond his control. Likewise, a trio of former AIG chief executives — Hank Greenberg, Martin Sullivan and Robert Willumstad — deflected blame in oral and written testimony to Congress.

Finger-pointers in Congress have found cover in public opinion polls that show most people blame CEOs for the crisis. But there is blame to go around, with Democrats choosing to ignore warnings about the possible implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Republicans supporting less regulation, says Harvard leadership expert Barbara Kellerman, who wrote a 2006 article in the Harvard Business Review titled, "When Should a Leader Apologize — and When Not?"

The absence of apologies has fed widespread outrage. Even CEOs in other industries are upset that they must now negotiate their companies through what appears to be an inevitable recession. While few CEOs in the USA have been outwardly critical of their counterparts in the financial sector, the founder and chairman emeritus of Kyocera, an electronics giant in Japan — where there is a culture of admitting mistakes — says what others may be thinking. CEOs who had a hand in the mess "should acknowledge their role and apologize, unreservedly, to their shareholders, stakeholders and the U.S. taxpayers," Kazuo Inamori told USA TODAY through an interpreter. "They should sincerely reflect on their own management methods. They were too preoccupied with their own desires. They should acknowledge their own faults and, yes, apologize."

However, no one in the U.S. believes they can get to the top by falling on their swords, says Dan McGinn, CEO of TMG Strategies, a public relations firm that counsels companies on threats to their reputations. McGinn says his personal belief is that there is more room for humility and honesty than most executives realize, and that the public hungers for candor and authenticity. Apologies, McGinn says, are wrongly perceived as a sign of weakness.

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