If you’ve never heard of a “classic Washington linguistic construct,” don’t feel alone. It’s not exactly a household phrase. But it does describe something you’ve no doubt heard many times – something more commonly known as a “non-apology apology.”
You can easily recognize these types of apologies because they include phrases like “mistakes were made” or “if I offended someone…” When an apology admits no fault and takes no responsibility for something, it’s not much of an apology. It’s a non-apology apology.
Non-apology apologies are extremely popular, especially among politicians in Washington. That’s why the New York Times started describing them with the term “classic Washington linguistic construct.” But they aren’t unique to politicians. You also hear them from sports stars, actors, and business leaders – anyone in the public limelight.
The fact is, people at the top don’t like to admit they were wrong. They see it as a sign of weakness or they fear they’ll lose respect if people discover the truth – that they’re human like everyone else. Of course, they’re wrong about that. In fact, while non-apology apologies are very popular, they aren’t in the toolbox of truly great leaders.
Why? Because they don’t generate trust. Since all leaders make mistakes and since tough times are inevitable, the best leaders work hard to create a foundation of trust. And one way they do it is with genuine apologies that include three essential components: Honesty, humility, and heart. I call them the 3H-Core.
If you want an example, watch the video apology given a few weeks ago by Dee Gordon. The second baseman for the Miami Marlins is an up-and-coming star in Major League baseball, but he was suspended for 80 games this year after testing positive for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Just before he returned from the suspension, Gordon posted a video apology to his young fans on Uninterrupted, a social media platform for athletes.
Gordon is a small guy for a professional athlete – 5-foot-11, 185 pounds. He’s not the type who would use drugs to bulk up to hit more home runs. So he could have made all sorts of excuses about how he wasn’t intentionally doing something wrong or how he wasn’t trying to gain an advantage or how the suspension was unfair. He could have said “mistakes were made” and that he was sorry “if” anyone was offended. But that’s not the approach Gordon took.
“I know I let you down, and I’m sorry,” said Gordon. “Complacency led me to this, and I’m hurt. I urge you guys to be more responsible than I am about what goes into your body. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. … I didn’t pay attention at all and I didn’t meet the standards. That’s my fault and no one else’s. But don’t give up on me.”
He rambles a little in the three-minute video, but that’s OK, because he’s not reading from some PR script. He’s speaking from the heart, and he’s speaking with heart. He comes across as humble, as someone who genuinely cares about the impact his mistakes had on others (a heart-based quality), and as someone who is honestly owning his errors and the consequences of his mistakes.
When it comes to baseball, I’m a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates (my hometown) and the Colorado Rockies (where I now live). But I have also become a fan of Dee Gordon for owning up to his mistakes and apologizing for them. He has restored trust with me, and, I suspect, with his fans. Now he just has to keep earning that trust by living out what he said he’ll do. If he does, he’ll be an All-Star where it really matters – in life.