What acknowledging our mistakes looks like (in case we don’t know)

One of the best things that has happened to politicians over the past year is that several individuals in the worlds of sports and entertainment have demonstrated how to acknowledge their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions.  Just recently, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga hurled a perfect game against the Cleveland Indians.  It was perfect, except it won’t go down in the record books that way.  After having retired the first 26 batters in order, the 27th hitter, Jason Donald,  stroked the ball to the right of first baseman Miguel Cabrera who made a nice play and who threw perfectly to Galarraga covering first base, beating the runner by a half step.

Umpire Jim Joyce had positioned himself perfectly and had a clear line of sight of the play.  For reasons that no one knows, not even Joyce, he called the runner safe.  Perhaps a gnat flew in front of one of his eyes; maybe he was startled by the cheering noise from the crowd; maybe the law of averages simply dictate that the best of us are going to make occasional mistakes in areas where we are highly skilled.

Joyce didn’t make excuses.  As ESPN reported,

It’s rare for an umpire to acknowledge a mistake in one of the few sports that relies heavily on the human eye, but Joyce did to reporters and later to Galarraga.

“It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the [stuff] out of it,” Joyce said, looking and sounding distraught as he paced in the umpires’ locker room. “I just cost that kid a perfect game.”

Perhaps dignity and class are contagious.  Galarraga could not have been more graceful following the incident.  When Joyce asked for a chance to personally apologize to Galarraga following the game, Galarraga was appreciative.  He said, “You don’t see an umpire after the game come out and say, ‘Hey, let me tell you I’m sorry.  He felt really bad.”  Before the next game, both Joyce and Galarraga took steps to meet on the field, shake hands and commiserate.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland, not known for his calmness, said, “The players are human, the umpires are human, the managers are human.”

Galarraga retired the 28th hitter, but the game will not count as a perfect one unless major league commissioner Bud Selig decides to alter the definition of fairness in baseball.  This too is not an easy call.

David Letterman may have set the standard in the world of entertainment for acknowledging a mistake.  He gracefully mixed his humor with the seriousness of his offense: having sex with women on his staff.  This transgression occurred  just several months after marrying the woman whom he had been dating for nearly a quarter of a century.

In the opening of his mea culpa show, he said,

“I mean, I’ll be honest with you folks – right now, I would give anything to be hiking on the Appalachian Trail.” (reference to lame and false excuse from South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford when he was visiting his mistress in Argentina).

“I got into the car this morning,” he added, “and the navigation lady wasn’t speaking to me. Ouch.”

In a more somber display, Letterman voiced his mea culpas. Regarding his wife, he said that, “if you hurt a person and it’s your responsibility, you try to fix it.  And at that point, there’s only two things that can happen: either you’re going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you’re going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed, so let me tell you folks, I got my work cut out for me.”

What Jim Joyce and David Letterman did following egregious mistakes is what we would like to expect of ourselves and others.  When people in government who hold a public trust either deny the truth or offer “non-apology apologies,” we are all damaged.  It is particularly disgraceful when the likes of Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, and Billy Tauzin walk away from Congress to comfy and profitable lobbying jobs.

The lessons that many public officials need to learn need not come from public figures such as Jim Joyce or David Letterman.  There are individuals of all ages who acknowledge their mistakes and offer legitimate apologies.  We don’t hear of these people, whether it’s the worker on the assembly line who wasn’t paying attention and brought assembly to a temporary halt, or the fifth-grader who bullied a classmate on the playground and (perhaps with the assistance of someone skilled in conflict resolution) apologizes, makes up with the person he assaulted, and even pays forward a good deed for the victim.

There are those who say that there should be no reward to anyone who “does the right thing,” because that is expected.  However, because there are so many individuals, particularly in the public arena, who still think that they can avoid responsibility for mistakes (e.g. Tony Hayward at BP), we can all do ourselves a favor by expressing appreciation to those who stand up and acknowledge when they fall down on the job.

NOTE: You may want to see Newsweek Magazine Editor John Meacham’s piece on this subject by clicking here.