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Reddit’s Ellen Pao trumps the Donald with two little words: I’m sorry

Ellen Pao, left, and Donald TrumpEllen Pao, left, and Donald Trump
Ellen Pao, left, and Donald TrumpPhotographs by Getty Images

“It’s a sign of weakness.”

That’s what a friend of mine once said about teachers who tell their students, “I don’t know.” I argued that the opposite is true: Teachers who respond to a student’s question by admitting ignorance evince strength. “Besides,” I added, “students are likely to respect a person in a position of power who tells the truth.”

This friendly disagreement came to mind recently when I read Mike Issac’s New York Times article, “Reddit’s Chief Apologizes After Employee’s Dismissal.” Ellen Pao, CEO of the San Francisco-based company, conceded that she made a mistake last week when she dismissed Victoria Taylor, an employee who was popular with Reddit’s fans. In fact, the scope of Pao’s apology covered more than a single blunder:

We screwed up. Not just on July 2, but also over the past several years. We haven’t communicated well, and we have surprised moderators and the community with big changes. We have apologized and made promises to you, the moderators and the community, over many years, but time and again, we haven’t delivered on them. When you’ve had feedback or requests, we haven’t always been responsive … Today, we acknowledge this long history of mistakes. We are grateful for all you do for Reddit, and the buck stops with me.

Sincerely apologizing in a timely fashion, as Pao has done, is both an honorable thing to do and a smart business strategy. Here are four leadership lessons worth keeping in mind.

1. Paying attention to reality is courageous and wise.

Ellen Pao saw that Reddit users were so incensed by her action last week that they removed large sections of the site. (One of Reddit’s distinguishing features is that users generate the site’s content themselves.) Pao responded by issuing a detailed, heartfelt apology and pledging to make specific changes in how she and the company conduct their affairs.

“But she did that only because she had no other alternative,” one might reply. “She had painted herself into a corner.” Yet history is littered with examples of business leaders who have known about problems within their companies and still did nothing about them. For example, a 24/7 Wall St. article called “The Worst Business Decisions of All Time” describes how Firestone was aware that the rubber in its radial tires tended to come off during usage, but it continued production anyway. The company wound up mired in costly lawsuits and a slew of negative publicity that hurt its bottom line.

The same is true in politics. Apparently it doesn’t matter to Donald Trump that many businesses and citizens are outraged by his views about illegal immigrants. As he suggested in his interview Monday with Business Insider’s Hunter Walker, Trump isn’t backing down from statements that are both offensive and untrue. Sometimes sticking to your guns isn’t courageous; it’s foolhardy. Is this the hallmark of a true leader?

2. Using active verbs and first-person pronouns shows you take responsibility seriously.

Ellen Pao made it clear who was to blame for the gaffes at her company: Ellen Pao. “I know we’ve drifted out of touch with the community as we’ve grown and added more people, and we want to connect more,” she wrote. “I and the team are committed to talking more often with the community, starting now.”

The phrase “I and the team” may be an awkward grammatical construction, but by naming herself first, Pao puts the onus where it belongs: on the chief executive officer.

This distinguishes her from other leaders who shift the blame through linguistic hocus-pocus. It was Ronald Reagan who said “mistakes were made” when referring to the Iran-Contra scandal in his 1987 State of the Union address, but Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as some CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, have used this verbal dodge to escape responsibility. Pao avoids it in her mea culpa and is better off for doing so.

3. Apologies, like dairy products, have an expiration date.

“If you plan to face tomorrow, do it soon,” warns Gordon Lightfoot in his song, “Race Among the Ruins.” So how much time should we take to own up to our mistakes? It took Walter White, the anti-hero of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, several years and the entire run of the series to confess the real reason he became a crystal-meth dealer: It made him feel powerful. White gets an A for honesty and an F for every other moral component of leadership.

Pao, on the other hand, is to be commended for apologizing in a timely fashion. A few days may seem like an eternity in the world of the Internet, but it’s a vast improvement over how long it took BP CEO Tony Hayward to own up to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As I discuss in my book, Ethical Intelligence, the way Hayward handled this fiasco remains the gold standard of how not to apologize in business.

4. It takes action—and time—to rebuild trust.

Bernie Taupin wrote, and Elton John sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word,” but an apology doesn’t mean anything unless it’s backed up by action, as Ellen Pao recognizes.

“I know these are just words,” she notes at the end of her missive, “and it may be hard for you to believe us. I don’t have all the answers, and it will take time for us to deliver concrete results.” Pao has said all of the right things, but it’s now up to her to deliver on her promises.

It’s too soon to say whether she’ll succeed, but if I asked a Magic 8 Ball for its prediction, I’d hope the response would be, “Signs point to yes.”

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A question for you, the reader

This column, like everything I write about for Fortune, is about ethics. But I’ve purposely limited my use of the words ethics and morality in favor of honor, character, and integrity, because I’ve found that them to be more engaging. Which terms do you prefer in discussions about how leaders—and everyone else—should conduct themselves? Why? I’d love to know. Please post your response below or send a tweet to @theethicsguy. Thank you!

Bruce Weinstein, The Ethics Guy, is a keynote speaker and corporate trainer in ethics, leadership, and character, and his latest book is The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees.