There’s nothing weak about an apology

Breaking the cycle of blame needs someone to have the courage to accept responsibility, says John Sturrock

Star cricketer Jonathan Trott left the Ashes tour of Australia due to a "stress-related illness". Picture: Getty
Star cricketer Jonathan Trott left the Ashes tour of Australia due to a "stress-related illness". Picture: Getty

Jonathan Trott’s decision to leave the England Ashes touring party due to a stress-related illness has been widely covered, with a degree of sympathy which marks a changing public awareness of the impact of mental health issues. It also suggests greater recognition that acknowledgement of vulnerability is not necessarily a sign of weakness. Indeed, to do so can be an indication of real courage and an act of considerable leadership. As one thoughtful writer in the field of modern leadership, Brene Brown, has said: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

He quotes President Theodore Roosevelt: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who strives valiantly;and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

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Striving to do the right thing

At a time when timidity and fear often get in the way of principle and integrity, when the pressures to deliver and conform are insidious and strong, it is good to be reminded that striving to do the right thing, perhaps at some cost, is still worthy, and takes courage.

What about the young lawyer who feels pressed to do something that, even at the margins, seems unethical? Or the chief executive who knows that to speak out too publicly on a matter of importance may lead to loss of work? Courage is not the same as fearlessness. Nelson Mandela captured it well: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Who do we admire in our world who is courageous in that sense? What are the attributes that mark out such people? In a world increasingly characterised by hubris – excessive self-confidence or empty self-importance – where do we look for humility? Is it possible for the humble to be leaders? Who among us is prepared to admit to mistakes, acknowledge our imperfections, show public appreciation of the efforts of unseen others, or apologise unreservedly for that word or action which has caused hurt or disruption to others?

Breaking the cycle

This is not an academic exercise. I know that in nearly every dispute in which I am privileged to be involved as a mediator, there is some element of personal animosity or hurt. Usually, it is among the principals, but not infrequently it is between the legal advisers who, perhaps over a period of time, have developed a mutually reinforcing suspicion of each other. Every apparently unhelpful act or letter is perceived as an indication of some hostility, which serves to fortify the perception already formed. Fortunately, we now understand much of this through recent developments in neuro-science, with concepts such as attribution error, associative coherence, reactive devaluation and wilful blindness offering explanations for what occurs daily.

What is often needed is to break the cycle. That can happen when someone – client or solicitor – is humble enough and brave enough to acknowledge responsibility. One of the most telling moments in my career as a mediator occurred nearly ten years ago. A senior partner in a large law firm, whose letters to his opposite number had apparently seriously inflamed both the situation and the claimant, said to the claimant: “I am truly sorry Mrs X, that the words in my letter had this impact on you….”

Of course, that did not make everything right, but it was the single most important turning-point. It provided a platform to move from blame and focusing on the past to problem-solving for the future. It was a moment of great dignity – for the solicitor and for Mrs X – and an act of true leadership, marked by courage and humility.

To be both humble and courageous, we need to step back and pause, reflect on our reactions, plan our responses, challenge our assumptions, choose our words with care, acknowledge the other story. As Ken Cloke, the outstanding contemporary author on conflict, said to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in May 2011: “There is no us and them, only us.” Food for thought.

• John Sturrock QC is chief executive of Core Solutions