On a lovely summer afternoon about 150 years ago a striking white-haired man stood at the edge of an unremarkable meadow just outside an obscure town in Pennsylvania. What he did next has always struck me as being among the most morally courageous acts I have ever read about.
The town was Gettysburg. The man, Robert E Lee.
Just a few score minutes earlier Lee had launched around 12,500 of his finest troops in an attack across that open farm land, uphill towards the enemy. It was a disaster. Half of the men Lee had ordered forward were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
He chose to meet the survivors as they straggled back to their own lines. ‘It was all my fault,’ he said. No equivocation or blaming higher powers, fate or bad luck.
‘It was all my fault.’
Not a phrase we hear a lot of in our public life. We often have easy apologies for historical acts. But they are safe ground for leaders. Everyone knows whatever is being apologised for is nothing to do with them.
What we get rather more of these days is the perfunctory use of ‘regret’. It’s a non-apology apology. It gives the impression of being sorry without ever having to take responsibility.
‘I regret the job losses …’
‘I regret the hardship this must be causing …’
‘I regret being unable to keep the pledge we made …’
There are other distancing techniques at use too. The third person. The passive tense. All designed to cocoon the speaker from taking any direct responsibility.
‘It’s all my fault.’
Wouldn’t it be refreshing, just for once, for leaders to say: ‘I got that wrong, it was my fault and I’m sorry.’
Would we really think any less of them for taking ownership of the consequences of their actions?
But I will not be holding my breath. ‘Sorry’ remains the least likely word you will hear a modern leader say. It is the hardest word.