Yesterday, in an interview on CBS Evening News, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg offered a surprising apology for the 346 lives lost in recent crashes of the company's 737 MAX aircraft in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
During the course of the interview, Muilenburg said, "I do personally apologize to the families." He continued,
As I've mentioned earlier, we feel terrible about these accidents, and we apologize for what happened. We are sorry for the loss of lives in both accidents... We are sorry for the impact to the families and the loved ones that are behind--and that will never change, that will always be with us. I can tell you it affects me directly as a leader of this company, it's very difficult.
What's most surprising to me about this apology is that Boeing's CEO didn't do the one thing that every great apology does: take responsibility for the thing that caused the problem in the first place. In the interview, Boeing's CEO did not apologize for the role that his company's troubled 737 MAX aircraft played in the twin air disasters.
Of course, any apology, no matter how well delivered, isn't going to make up for what happened.
Many observers believe that the aircraft itself was to blame for the crashes. In fact, in a statement issued in April, Muilenburg seemed to indicate as much. According to Muilenburg, "it's apparent that in both flights the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, known as MCAS, activated in response to erroneous angle of attack information."
A month ago, however, Muilenburg backtracked on fixing blame on the 737 MAX aircraft. In response to a reporter's question, he inferred that the pilots may have been to blame for the crashes when he said, "in some cases, those procedures were not completely followed."
In her book No One Understands You: And What to Do About It, social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson suggests that apologies are very powerful things. Says Halvorson, "Done right, they can resolve conflict, repair hurt feelings, foster forgiveness, and improve relationships."
Will Muilenburg's apology accomplish all this? Only time will tell.
Warren Buffett is an expert at offering apologies when he makes a mistake that affects his shareholders' investments. His leadership style matches the style of his apologies, which is self-critical, honest, and genuine.
Perhaps Boeing's CEO should consider Buffett's advice: "Agonizing over errors is a mistake. But acknowledging and analyzing them can be useful, though that practice is rare in corporate boardrooms."