Steven Berglas Ph.D.

Executive Ego

Want Insights on Executive Psychology? Ask a Wise Old Jew

How to find leadership wisdom

Posted Mar 20, 2017

Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Long before every CEO on earth had an executive coach the cognoscenti on Wall St. used a rabbi (small “r”) as their business advisor(s). No, being a rabbi to a big shot at JPMorgan had nothing to do with being a Rabbi (big “R”), the spiritual leader of a Jewish community and the chief religious official of a synagogue. A rabbi to a heavy hitter at Morgan Stanley could be Italian, Greek, whatever. He just needed seykhel—Yiddish for intelligence, “street smarts,” and wisdom.

Rabbis aren’t the only Jews presumed to have seykhel: Much of what social psychology deals with—truisms about life—has been called bubba psychology because bubba, or bubbe, is an affectionate nickname, in Yiddish, for "grandmother."  Formally defined as naïve or implicit theories of psychology, bubba psychology codifies what Jewish grandmothers know without benefit of graduate training. Which is plenty! Trust me: Any shrink who is not versed in bubba psychology shouldn’t be allowed to do pet sitting, let alone psychotherapy.

As a Jew I’m proud that two elders in my community are viewed as being uniquely suited to mentor or advise others. But can you imagine how I’d feel if a third “elder Jew” gains respect for grasping the human condition in ways that transcend “normal” understanding? It may be happening as I type: I have recently seen a trend toward employing a third type of Jewish counselor: A grandfather, or zayde.

Just yesterday, a key House Intelligence Committee member, Representative Will Hurd (R-Texas), appeared as a guest of ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos on This Week to discuss President Trump’s extraordinarily disquieting claims about being wiretapped at Trump Tower. Noting that he had seen no evidence to support POTUS’s accusations, Hurd—I believe his family name was Kuznetzov when his great-grandparents fled Anatevka in Russia and landed at Ellis Island—suggested that Trump might want to consider apologizing for his propensity for tweeting provocative put-downs to whomever he was irked with, whenever the mood struck him.

Representative Hurd’s specific comment was, “To quote my 85-year-old father ... 'It never hurts to say you're sorry.” I assume that Representative Hurd has been a good Jewish son and given his parents grandchildren so, by dint of the fact that the senior Mr. Hurd is a grandfather I can call the type of advice he gave Representative Hurd zeyde psychologyleadership insights that all seasoned executives who are not gonifs (sleazy characters) take to heart.

Okay— I’m joking about Representative Hurd being Jewish; he identifies himself as African-American. But you understand where I’m going: If folks just paid attention to good old common sense (“horse sense” in San Antonio, one of the cities Hurd represents), life would run as smoothly as a Bentley Azure convertible.

The problem is that most people walk through life resisting advice. Believe it or not, the penchant to “do it my way” even extends to those contexts in which people pay for advice, such as when working with a coach.  And if you think your BFFs regularly turn deaf ears on any and all “guidance” you want to give them, any random executive you can find makes your obstinate friends look downright compliant. Bathed in beliefs like, “the buck stops here” and “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” executives overwhelmingly endorse the notion that “I’m sorry” are two words someone who wants leadership responsibility cannot afford to utter.

What’s Up with That?

Executives, owing to the mythology that machismo is a key character trait needed for their job, are more prone than most to engage in a self-defeating syndrome known as “escalation of commitment”[1] when a decision they made seems to be obviously wrong and in need of changing. If you are old enough to remember the Vietnam War and how, despite horrific losses and no clear path to victory apparent to anyone, two presidents and countless generals kept sinking money and, unconscionably, men and women in the military, into this debacle, you understand “escalation of commitment.”

If you ask psychologists and economists who study “sunk costs,” the stuff that fuels escalation of commitment behavior, why people act this way, a common answer is: “They don’t want to be humiliated.” They irrationally tell themselves, “Wow… I’m in it for so, so, so much money. I’ll look like a jackass if I quit now. I’ll double-down and find a way to prevail.”

There’s a much better option: Grandpa Hurd’s approach.

The Paradoxical Power of “I’m Sorry…”

Back in 1985 the then CEO of Coca Cola, Roberto C. Goizueta, could have immersed himself in an escalation of commitment disaster when he replaced his company’s flagship beverage, Coke, with what the company called “New Coke.” You see, Goizueta feared that Pepsi, Coke’s #1 competitor, was capturing more and more market share and he had to make a bold move to stop the encroachment. What he did was take soft-drink industry-leader Coke off the market and replace it with a cola dubbed "New Coke."

Error! It’s hard to make comparisons over decades, but the hate mail, anti-New Coke ad campaigns, and even death threats received by Goizueta, make the stuff coming into President Trump’s inbox from followers of Rachel Maddow look like the reactions Tom Brady receives when walking around Boston.

The thing about Goizueta, however, was that he was schooled like Representative Hurd’s father was: Rather than trying to make his poorly received change work by increasing his marketing budget and escalating his commitment to his failed business plan, Goizueta immediately reversed himself and touted "Classic Coke" –the company's original formula— as the brand to buy. He actually held a news conference where he said, “I’m sorry” and other apologetic phases, before doing a quasi-road tour where he went to Coke bottlers to, again, say mea culpa.

Another person with the seykhel to follow the senior Mr. Hurd’s advice was former President John F. Kennedy. Following the botched Bay of Pigs invasion (aimed at removing Fidel Castro from power in Cuba), Kennedy not only immediately assumed complete responsibility for the fiasco he publicly apologized for whatever harm or discomfort his decision caused the nation. Never once did Kennedy externalize blame for his failure (which would have been easy to do), nor did he excuse his misguided initiative by arguing that the Cuban communist menace justified his behavior.

If you're wondering how Goizueta and Kennedy fared after taking actions that contradict our implicit personality theory of how powerful executives behave, the answer is simple and in keeping with the Hurd Leadership Principle: Both leaders saw their popularity and job-approval ratings skyrocket. [2]  

Here are the lessons to learn from offering an authentic, heartfelt, “I’m sorry” for snafus that may or may not be 100 percent your fault:

• People who externalize blame for poor decisions are always revealed to be weak—like bad carpenters blaming their tools—and not worthy of respect. The executive who prevails, over time, is the one who says, “I struck out but will have other at-bats to show you my ability.”

• Saying "I’m sorry" makes you look strong. By admitting to feet of clay, you tell people, “Sure; I’m human. But strong human since I’ve got so much going for me I can admit to a deficit because I’ve got tons of good stuff to counter it.

• “I’m sorry” takes the wind out of critics’ sails. Unless you are a black belt in strategic self-presentation you could not possibly know that apologizing disarms critics. If I say, “I’m sorry, I blew it,” what can a detractor add? I stated the “worst case” already. All anyone can say is, “Oh, um, Steve’s correct (and very insightful).” My BFF would say that—but a detractor? Nope. Thus, I silence detractors with apologies.

Representative Hurd, this closing comment is for you: Please keep quoting your father every time you’re able to. He’s a wise man, did well by you, and the nation can profit from his wisdom and yours.


[1] Professor Emeritus Barry M. Staw of UC Berkeley has done the best available research on the phoenomenon of escalation of commitment.

[2] Berglas, S. (1996). "Pratfalls." Inc., September, p. 23 - 24.

About the Author

Steven Berglas, Ph.D., spent over 25 years on the faculty of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry. Today, he is an executive coach working primarily for Silicon Valley IT firms and hedge funds.

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