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

Other dynamics may be at play. The magnitude of the crisis has leaders frightened into taking the Martha Stewart/Pete Rose path of stubborn denial, which may have helped put one in prison and blocked the other from baseball's Hall of Fame. The bigger the injury, the longer the wait. By the time Bridgestone CEO Masatoshi Ono apologized to the Senate Commerce Committee in 2000 for faulty tires, four years had passed since the problem first appeared and the Bridgestone/Firestone incident had become a case study in how not to handle a crisis. Ono retired shortly afterward. In 1995, Helge Wehmeier, then CEO of Bayer U.S., expressed deep regret on behalf of Bayer's original parent company, I.G. Farbenindustrie, for its having been complicit in the Holocaust. Ten years later, then-CEO of Wachovia Ken Thompson apologized that two companies the bank acquired had owned slaves.

A key reason for the sudden lack of apologies may be that there is so much cover afforded. The financial problem is complex, and culprits abound, Kellerman says.

"When the waters are this muddy, it's difficult to assign blame," Kellerman says. She calls such cover "the blessing of many hands," saying it allows those people and institutions responsible to hide, or even go on the offense and blame others.

"Individuals can ultimately convince themselves that they did what anyone would do in the same situation," Yarrow says. "With so many players, it's easy to shift blame. Under stress, the mind finds ways to protect itself from truths that can damage a positive self-image."

Silence is golden during litigation

The strongest argument for silence may be the courtroom. Grand jury investigations have begun, Fuld and other executives have received subpoenas, and the standard advice of criminal defense lawyers is to say nothing, says Columbia law professor John Coffee. "Everyone remembers that six months after the fall of Enron and WorldCom, indictments began to come down, and it rained indictments for the next year," he says. "Those who accept responsibility might become the lightning rod that attracts the first bolt of lightning from the prosecutors."

"After two decades of class-action litigation, most general counsels will caution their CEOs against apologizing until the facts are thoroughly investigated and liabilities are determined," McGinn says. "This is in conflict, of course, with the expectations of the media and the public."

There is also a fresh crop of leaders running companies most often implicated in the crisis, which has so far allowed old leaders to step into the shadows. Edward Liddy replaced Willumstad at AIG, Herbert Allison replaced Dan Mudd at Fannie Mae, and David Moffett replaced Richard Syron at Freddie Mac, all last month. "Time is running out for apologies to be effective," Gaines-Ross says. "If a few CEOs act contrite and take action, shareholders might breathe a sigh of relief and move on."

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