From Pariah to Messiah
There are the true to life examples of the international businessman accused of embezzlement and dodging his taxes; the religious leader accused of assault; and the politician who unwittingly presented the inaccurate evidence that started a twenty-year war in which thousands perished. In a decade with great expectations of transparency and accountability, there is no shortage of leaders that fail this test.
Unlike strategic public relations or crisis management, rehabilitation is not about quick thinking and hard-hitting spin. It’s about rebuilding a foundation of trust and there are tried and true methods for achieving that.
As a strategic communications professional and entrepreneur for nearly two decades, I’ve worked with and studied the efforts of disgraced leaders and have identified five distinct elements that lead to a successful comeback. In momentarily putting aside innocence or guilt and whether the individual deserves a return from exile, we can identify those elements.
Apologizing isn’t the first step. It’s the last.
It has been said that all forgiveness starts with a genuine apology but that’s not always true. Apologizing to those that you’ve hurt is an essential step but it’s not necessarily the first step. In the case of the most egregious missteps a premature apology can significantly hinder a rehabilitation effort. Apologizing too soon after the events in question may come off as disingenuous and exacerbate the offense. It can sometimes compound the trauma by not allowing for anger to dissipate and wounds to heal.
1. Mitigate the harm
This may seem like a no-brainer but it’s not always that easy. For those in a business setting who can rescind an insensitive policy or unilaterally take action to mitigate harm, that should be done as responsibly as possible. However, political figures rarely have an opportunity to change a vote or stop a war. Their actions often have life or death consequences that can’t be undone. Similarly, leaders of sprawling organizations (i.e. The Catholic Church) may not have the ability to weed out corruption or turn a culture of fear and secrecy into one of openness and honesty as quickly as they would like.
In some cases, new evidence of wrongdoing will percolate into the media and punches will continue to land long after policies have changed.
Even still, leaders cannot put the past behind them until it’s actually the past.
2. Be like Superman
This article is purely tactical, but tactics are most effective when they are accompanied by an honest desire to make up for what you’ve done. This is the mia culpa stage. Don’t confuse that with an apology. Mia culpa literally means “my fault.”
You must get comfortable with the idea that this is your fault. Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter if it is or it isn’t.
As long as the public believe that this is your fault, you have to operate as if it were. This is about digging deep and understanding that you are a fallible human and that you did something improper. Make amends. Volunteer. Teach. Right the wrongs you’ve perpetrated but don’t prematurely seek acknowledgement or publicity. Leaders should participate in this step regardless of whether it is purely tactical or if there is genuine desire to do good works for their own sake. It’s worth noting that inauthenticity will be easy to sniff out, but I am a believer in the fake it till you make it model of personal change. For the powerful or materialistic among us, it may be challenging to desire the benefits associated with public service before you’ve tasted its fruits. But do us all a favor and don’t stay stuck in the “fake it” stage longer than you have to.
3. Activate Others
The best leadership comebacks are genuine and thorough, if not tactical. This implies that you’ve truly had a change of heart. If someone as powerful and successful as you can fall from grace, then the source of your exile is likely to affect others in similar positions as well. All positions of power are corrupting in some form. For you, there are consequences, but your insider knowledge of these corrupting systems makes you an invaluable resource in the fight to reform them. Writing and speaking about your process with complete candor, even ceding territory to your accusers can educate others and endear you to the public. If your change of heart is genuine, the public will begin to sense that. We will listen to what you have to say, and we will buy your book. At worst, you’ll sell one copy to me.
4. Let Time Pass
Remember, it may not be the right time. I’m not quite sure anyone is ready for a lecture from American Presidents George W. Bush about the slippery slope of military action in the Middle East or Bill Clinton about the value of fidelity. Victims of the Catholic Church may never be ready to forgive, but many victims who have spoken out have articulated that their desire to fight comes not from a place of vengeance but instead from a place of wanting to protect others from having to go through what they did. If there were no fear that the Church were still covering up more wrongdoing, they would be less likely to oppose the many good works of the church.
Remember, the apology isn’t for you. It’s for those you hurt and if they are not willing to receive it, you’d be best served by going back to steps 2 and 3. Good timing isn’t everything, but it sure does help.
Don’t confuse repentance with an apology. There is evidence that the common biblical understanding of repentance is derived from a mistranslation of the Aramaic word teshuva. Teshuva means “return” as in to go back in time. Repentance has to be so thorough in its authenticity that by sheer will alone the soul can go back in time and undo the harm that it perpetrated, while also promising to never do it again. It’s hard to express the importance of a genuine apology but it’s just as hard to muster one. If it’s easy, it’s probably not real and if the public senses an ulterior motive, your apology will fall flat.
Few stories are more enticing than those of corporate greed, political malfeasance or abuses of power. But as flawed as we human beings may be, most of us want to believe in our own intrinsic goodness and many are capable of seeing the shortcomings in others within ourselves. This fact alone makes our species predisposed to forgiveness. Our collective memory is short, and we are just as likely to find a heart-warming comeback story as powerful as the freudenschade in their downfall. Not all leaders deserve a second try at power, but for those that do, these five elements are essential to long term success.
Remember, you won’t get the forgiveness that you don’t deserve, and the world may not be ready to forgive you. But if they are, it will likely come by way of these five steps.