When Bill Clinton published his best-selling memoir in 2004, he knew he would have to deal with the Monica Lewinsky scandal during his second term. He did so by explaining it as a personal failure, a yielding to private demons.
“Once people reach the age of accountability, no matter what people do to them, that is not an excuse for any mistakes they make. I was involved in two great struggles at the same time: a great public struggle over the future of America with the Republican Congress and a private struggle with my old demons. I won the public one and lost the private one,” Clinton said.
“I don’t think it’s much more complicated than that. That’s not an excuse. But it is an explanation, and that’s the best I can do.”
Clinton understood the distinction -- and not just because his behavior was inexcusable. There is simply no excuse for making excuses.
When you’re late to an appointment and you hear yourself saying, “I’m sorry I’m late but the traffic was murder,” stop at the word “sorry.” Blaming traffic doesn’t excuse the fact that you kept people waiting. You should have started earlier. You certainly won’t have to apologize for: “I’m sorry I’m early, but I left too soon and the traffic was moving along just fine.”
If the world worked like that, there would be no excuses.
I like to divide excuses into two categories: blunt and subtle. The blunt, “dog ate my homework” excuse sounds something like this: “I’m very sorry I missed our lunch date. My assistant had it marked down for the wrong day on my calendar.”
Translation: “You see, it’s not that I forgot the lunch date. It’s not that I don’t regard you as so important that lunch with you is the unchangeable, non-negotiable highlight of my day. It’s just that my assistant is inept. Blame my assistant, not me.”
The problem with this type of excuse is that we rarely get away with it -- and it’s hardly an effective leadership strategy. After reviewing thousands of 360-degree feedback summaries, I have a feel for what qualities direct reports respect and don’t respect in their leaders. I have never seen feedback that said, “I think you are a great leader because I love the quality of your excuses,” or, “I thought you screwed up, but you really changed my mind after you made that excuse.”
The more subtle excuses appear when we attribute our failings to some genetic characteristic that’s apparently lodged in our brains. We talk about ourselves as if we have permanent genetic flaws that can never be altered.
You’ve surely heard these excuses. Maybe you’ve even used a few of them: “I’m impatient.” “I always put things off until the last minute.” “I’ve always had a quick temper.”
Habitually, these expositional statements are followed by saying, “I’m sorry, but that’s just the way I am.”
It’s amazing how often I hear otherwise brilliant, successful people make willfully self-deprecating comments about themselves. It’s a subtle art because, in effect, they’re stereotyping themselves and using that to excuse otherwise inexcusable behavior.
Our personal stereotyping frequently comes from stories or preconceived notions about ourselves that have been preserved and repeated for years, sometimes going back as far as childhood. These stories may have little or no basis in fact. But they imprint themselves in our minds and establish low expectations that become self-fulfilling prophecies.
The next time you hear yourself saying, “I’m just no good at ...” ask yourself, “Why not?”
This doesn’t just refer to our aptitudes at mathematics or mechanics. It also applies to our behavior. We excuse our tardiness because we’ve been running late all our lives, and our family, friends and colleagues let us get away with it. These aren’t genetic flaws. We weren’t born this way, and we don’t have to be this way.
If we can stop excusing ourselves, we can get better at almost anything we choose.
Life is good.
My newest book, MOJO, is a New York Times (advice), Wall Street Journal (business), USAToday (money) and Publisher's Weekly (non-fiction) best seller. It is now available online and at major bookstores.