Even the most honest and dependable of us will occasionally make mistakes and do or say something we wish we could take back. Those moments often cause feelings of fear and humiliation and constitute a critical inflection point where the rubber of trustworthiness hits the road in earnest. That inflection point relates to a longstanding debate in the business world regarding the difference between responsibility and accountability. In simplest terms responsibility is given to someone (usually because of function or title) while accountability must be taken, owned, and embraced by the individual. Responsibility is general in scope while accountability is specific and personal. Very personal. When things go wrong in the workplace some “responsible” employees will point the finger of accountability, and the accompanying blame, at others (usually subordinates or weaker peers). These individuals covet the prestige and reward of responsibility (usually in the form of money and promotions) but want no exposure to the downside of personal accountability. These individuals roam aimlessly down a self-indulgent path of inured idiocy and add nothing to our discussion of personal integrity.
Our focus instead is on those individuals who unflinchingly and without hesitation hold themselves accountable. They’ve already decided to own up to their failings and foibles, but that’s not their only decision. They must now make a deliberate choice between offering an apology or a confession. Notwithstanding the more common connotations of confession related to criminal activities and religious traditions, heartfelt confessions play an important role in 20/20 value systems.
In The Art of the Public Grovel, Susan Wise Bauer offers a distinction between apologies and confessions: “An apology is an expression of regret. I am sorry. A confession is an admission of fault. I am sorry because I did wrong.” As much as we like the simplicity of Bauer’s definition, it’s a little too simplistic. We’ve all seen a parade of politicians standing alongside their stoic wives as they “confessed” their affairs, multiple encounters with prostitutes, and addiction to sexting with underage interns. Holding back tears, they admit that they “did wrong” and invariably ask the Lord’s help in becoming a better person. But it all comes across as hollow and banal.
Individuals possessing a 20/20 mindset make a more nuanced distinction between apologies and confessions (even if they don’t use that exact terminology). Apologies are usually offered in less public, less official, and less specific ways than the offense that preceded them. Confessions include a true profession of accountability (without the subtle and not-so-subtle caveats that accompany most apologies). The key difference is that confessions include an articulated action plan to make amends and to ensure the mistake/offense is not repeated. Confessions also include a deep understanding that our internal compass has misfired and needs to be recalibrated to recognize dangers and obstacles long before we collide head-on into them.
This type of confession is sometimes referred to as moral courage – a solidarity of mind and spirit that can stare down any challenge and, in the process, allow you to scale ever greater heights.