Sunday, December 18, 2005

The error of my ways

When I moved to The Flamingo I upgraded to digital cable, which required a box. A "trained technician" was dispatched to perform this intricate installation. When he was done we tested it, and the cable and TV appeared to be working. Then I had the idea of testing the VCR (yes, I still have a VCR), which didn't work. The technician played around with it for a few minutes, then said, "It doesn't work; the movers must have dropped it." I told him the movers had never seen or touched it; a friend and I had personally carried it over from the old place a block away—and that it had been working earlier that week. "Maybe you dropped or bumped it, then," he said. No, I think we would have noticed that. It was not a point worth arguing, however; the VCR didn't work, and the technician was unable to help or to admit he didn't know how to. He left, having placed the blame squarely on me.

A few days later I looked at the setup and decided that something didn't look quite right and that switching a couple of the cables around might work. It did; voilĂ —a working TV, cable, and VCR setup. And I'm not a trained technician.

When something goes wrong or doesn't work, the first reaction seems to be, "Did you . . .?" that is, to avoid responsibility and shift the blame to someone, anyone, else. At work, if there is a mistake in a report it must be the fault of the assistant or the junior staff person, even though they are not the reviewers who sign off.

Even our political leaders refuse to admit their errors, no matter how obvious they are or how thoroughly they have been demonstrated. The question is, do the leaders set the tone for the rest of us, or do we choose and support them because they reflect the standards we embrace?

To me, the ability to admit mistakes is courageous, while the inability to admit them is cowardly. It takes strength to face up to errors and their ramifications; it takes only stubbornness, arrogance, and bravado to deny culpability.

In our world, though, a leader is "strong" when he or she clings to their own errors and prevarications, as though wishes were horses. People perceive them as having the "strength of their convictions"—no matter how flawed the convictions. Those who confess to mistakes and errors in judgment are seen as weak, tentative, and indecisive—even though they have been brave enough to face the people and the consequences, whether it's mere humiliation or a more serious outcome, such as a trial and potential conviction and sentence.

In everyday life, we blame someone else for our failings; if children don't learn, it's the teacher's fault; if there's a mistake on the printed page, it's the printer's fault; if a team performs badly, it's the weather or travel. So it's not surprising that we vote for leaders who are just like us, fallible yet self-righteous and frightened of punishment. When they do prove to be wrong beyond doubt, we abandon them like proverbial rats. It's not our fault for choosing them. How were we to know?

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