What to Do When You Really, Really Screw Up

What to Do When You Really, Really Screw Up

What happens when a journalist, who supposedly makes his living speaking the truth to the public, opens his mouth, and an offensive opinion drops out? Don Lemon can tell you that the initial blowback can be considerable. When he implied that Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley was “past her prime,” the outcry was immediate, and he was taken off the air … for a few days. He didn’t end up being a victim of cancel culture, and he went back on his usual program, addressing the news without mentioning a scandal. After some commentary about this development, the news cycles moved on, and the issue seems to have disappeared without any accountability. 

When a public figure messes up, the situation can be handled in several ways, but the Lemon lesson wasn’t it. Cancelation, or some other form of punishment, doesn’t create accountability. It doesn’t offer a tangible lesson to the many influenced by this person on how to do better. Nor does a perfunctory apology suffice to balance out the wrong done. So what should this person do?

Here are a few things I would love for Don Lemon to do or have done.

Five Steps of Accountability

  1. Apologize in an Authentic Way 

A genuine apology has to stand alone without excuses or ‘buts.’ It is a humble act that can be hard for people accustomed to being right and in power. But it is critical to acknowledge that, as humans, we are all capable of errors and equally capable of owning up to them. Some apologies are better left in private conversations, some on social media, and some on TV live – if you are Don Lemon. 

  1. Ask Others What it Should Take To Recover & Make It Right

An apology is often directed to a person or people who have been wronged. They have had something – dignity, reputation, or something else – taken from them. Others might have been caught up in the process as well. Don Lemon’s colleagues were forced to deal with his comment and the blow-back. These people have a stake in the accountability and rectification of the mistake. Ask these stakeholders what would make it right. 

  1. Ask Yourself Why You Did It and What You Learned from It

Does Don Lemon genuinely believe that women past their 20s-30-40s are no longer in their prime? Was it a brain hiccup, an unconscious bias, or a retrograde commentary about her as a politician? If you don’t know what you were thinking, you may want to explore what happened, or it can happen again. If what Don Lemon actually meant was that Nikki Haley had missed her window of political momentum, then the words he chose definitely missed the mark. 

  1. Try to Move the Conversation Forward

Mistakes are teachable moments. They present an opportunity to air out the issue and learn how to be better. The person making a mistake should lead the conversation and set an example of how to come back from it in a positive way. Maybe Don Lemon should do a segment on unconscious bias and women doing amazing things at every age. 

  1. Plan for the Ghost to Haunt You

When we make a big enough mistake, it doesn’t simply go away. It can come up repeatedly, even after apologies, reparations, and atonement. Own this reality and prepare for the eventual comments and fallout. Recently, Mark Wahlberg introduced the primarily Asian cast of Everything Everywhere All At Once, which brought up his past hate crime for which he was convicted in the 80s as a teenager. He served time, turned his life around, and apologized to the victim, but his past came back to haunt him nonetheless. This moment could have been handled as a more explicit redemption, but instead, it became a further scandal. 

It’s hard to make a mistake, but being intentional about regret and taking steps to make amends to those who were harmed can help turn the situation around. 

Interested in learning more?

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 Jen Dalton is a personal brand specialist with entrepreneurship in her DNA. Her book, Listen: How To Embrace the Difficult Conversations Life Throws at You, is an insightful guide to navigating tough talks. She helps business owners and executives define how they show up as leaders, make the most of their strengths, and tend to their legacy, growth, and visibility. The author of two books, including The Intentional Entrepreneur, a frequent speaker, podcaster, and “Purpose Sherpa,” Jen is a critical resource for any person or company that wants to define their brand and differentiate themselves in authentic, credible, and relevant ways to the market. brandmirror.com