Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

To err is human. Public officials shouldn’t be reluctant to admit mistakes and to apologize for them.

Every single one of us makes mistakes. Nevertheless, public officials have to pretend that they never do, and when missteps are uncovered, honest errors are treated as carrying malicious intent. The result is a situation that is toxic and at its core truly dishonest.

I remember one (of many) situations like this that occurred when I was mayor of Kansas City. We said to ourselves, "What the hell happened? And how shall we respond to the press?" I said, "It was just a screw-up, and let's just tell them that." One of my chief communications advisors, a guy who had been a veteran political reporter, howled. He said we absolutely couldn't say that. As a result, we went about semi-denying and semi-making up some lame explanation/excuse for what happened.

Missoula Mayor John Engen
Missoula Mayor John Engen
So I was pleasantly surprised when I read recently about John Engen, the mayor of Missoula, Mont. Engen had reprimanded a police officer who, writing as a private citizen on his personal email account, had sent a message to University of Montana administrators and boosters expressing his concerns about alleged sexual assaults at UM. The mayor decided that he had over-reacted. He called the officer to apologize and then sent the following email not only to members of the police force but to all of the city's employees: "I make mistakes, some big, some small. Not all of them appear in newspaper headlines, but one did on Sunday and I wanted to let you, the officers I count on to serve and protect our community, know that I'm sorry for that mistake."

It's true that just about every management guru tells you to acknowledge your mistakes. I can tell you, though, that most of those folks never held elective office. When an elected official admits an error in judgment, he or she generally gets ripped bloody — with or without the obligatory apology — and learns not to do that again. So what happened to Mayor Engen? He says he was surprised by the reaction he got from local folks: They thanked him. I asked him whether admitting mistakes would make him seem less competent, and he responded that "I'd rather be an honest bumbling fool than a coward who's full of bull." And then he made an interesting comment. He said that "while we're transparent, sometimes we're not open" and that openness was the key to honest conversation and problem-solving.

So why, when most public officials would have been creamed for it, did Mayor Engen emerge from his acknowledgement of error relatively unscathed? Are things just that different in Missoula? The mayor says the city has an active, engaged citizenry that engages in fairly vigorous conversation, but that at the end of the day they get things done. "The Missoula city council is certainly not the Congress of the United States," he says. Engen was born and raised in Missoula and attended UM, so he knows the customs and ways of his constituents. He has a degree in journalism and spent time as a journalist and a small businessman, and I think those help him as well.

But as much credit for honesty and courage as you want to give the mayor, you have to give some to the citizens of Missoula as well. They seem to be pretty decent folks who govern themselves well. Certainly Norman Maclean thought as much when he wrote, in "A River Runs Through It," of "the world outside, which my brother and I soon discovered was full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from Missoula, Montana."