CNN has updated its Celebs’ “I’m Sorry” Hall of Fame with the recent apology of author John Grisham for statements he made about child pornography and sex offenders.  Celebrity apologies matter, and not just for their entertainment value.  They matter because, whether we like it or not, celebrities serve as barometers of the culture.  Sure, some stars do a good job of expressing remorse and empathy when they occasionally mess up, but many more behave outrageously and shrug it off.  When that happens, their forced apologies lack empathy, the quality that psychologist Guy Winch, Ph.D., ranks as the most important and most often omitted ingredient to an effective apology.  More and more, celebrity apologies reflect a culture of narcissism and entitlement.

Individuals and businesses can help change that culture by choosing and acting on a clear set of values.  For example:

  • Know What You Stand For.  Decide what you want to be known for and stick with it.  Whatever your business priorities, make sure that they are clear and consistent.
  • Set Clear Expectations.  Identify the important values that represent the core of your organization, and then translate those values into clear standards for employees at different levels, so that the workforce understands what it looks like to live the values.
  • Hire Based on Business Values.  Resist the temptation to overemphasize presentation skills at the expense of candidates with a track record of real achievement.  The more clearly you understand and communicate your business priorities, the more likely you’ll be to bring in talent that will strengthen your culture and boost your bottom line.
  • Turn Corporate Role Models into Mentors.  Take the time to identify the people in your organization who are doing the best job of putting corporate values into action.  These people are likely to be major internal influencers even if they’re not the ones most frequently putting their names forward for recognition.  Train these people as mentors who can build internal alignment.
  • Hold Your Team Accountable.  Know when to give second chances.  I believe in giving second chances to valued team members who have made an isolated mistake that is not illegal and not unethical, as long as they take responsibility and also understand that apologizing isn’t enough: they must know the mistake cannot be repeated.  But if a mistake is repeated, maybe that person doesn’t get a third chance to do damage to company values. 

For my part, while I work every day to make sure these principles stay at the heart of JBK Associates International, I’m also focusing my own stargazing on qualities I admire, such as the work ethic and dignity of Arnold Palmer, the grace and talent of Meryl Streep, and the tenacity of skier Bonnie St. John.  And I’ll think of all the millions of noncelebrities who, if we all made an effort to set an example, could quickly inspire each other the way celebrities used to inspire us.

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