What ever happened to the words "I'm sorry?" In recent weeks, as the real estate industry's top tier has lined up to offer their admissions of culpability in the current economic crisis, the country has been listening and waiting for an apology. And it seems we will have to wait a little longer—the apology has yet to find its way into the vernacular of our country's leaders.
Take Alan Greenspan. After spending much of 2008 defending his record as chairman of the Federal Reserve, he said last month that he "made a mistake" in promoting hands-off regulatory policies. "Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity (myself especially) are in a state of shocked disbelief," he testified before the House Oversight Committee, adding that he had "found a flaw" in his ideology. Yet, for all his bravado, when asked point-blankly if he was wrong, Greenspan could only muster the word "partially." Anticipating the current economic crisis, he said, was "more than anybody is capable of juggling." And, ultimately, he did what Congress asked of him—"what I am supposed to do, not what I'd like to do."
If you ask me, those statements best sum up his attitude—conceding to having just enough poor judgment to escape admonishment but not enough to accept any actual responsibility.
Greenspan is not alone. In a recent New York Times article, Henry Cisneros, head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under President Bill Clinton, said he, too, made mistakes in the years leading up to housing's heyday. "I've been waiting for someone to put all the blame at my doorstep," he told the Times. He had "misgivings," according tothe article, implying that his good intentions about providing affordable housing were hijacked by "bad actors."
Yet, after leaving HUD, Cisneros joined the boards of KB Home and Countrywide Financial—two companies that prospered dramatically during the boom and fell just as sharply during the economic collapse and credit crunch of the past year. "I look back at HUD and feel my hands were clean," Cisneros added. "The irresistible temptation to engage in subprime was Countrywide's fatal error. I fault myself for not having seen it and, since it was not something I could change, having left."
I read both Greenspan's testimony and Cisneros' interview with great interest. My eyes probed for the words "I'm sorry" or "I apologize to the American people." They were noticeably absent.
At a recent media conference, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman and publisher at The New York Times Co., said that "trustworthy voices are more important than they have ever been." I agree. But trustworthiness does not exist in a vacuum—it requires responsibility, accountability, honesty, and the willingness to sincerely apologize for any wrongdoing.
The admissions of error made by Greenspan, Cisneros, and others in the past few weeks are a start. But a true leader not only knows when—and how—to admit a mistake, but more importantly, how to actually ask for forgiveness from those he or she has led in the wrong direction. In the days, weeks, and months following the Wall Street meltdown and this month's presidential election, many of the multifamily industry's executives will be making tough decisions as they try to figure out how to lead, manage, and inspire their staffs, while also finding a little rest from the grind. Hopefully, this, our first Annual Leadership Issue, will offer some ideas to get you on the right path.
And if, for any reason, the strategies we discuss are not quite the right fit for your organization, let me be the first to say, I'm sorry.
Shabnam Mogharabi, Editor