Yesterday here, I came out in favor of euphemism as a useful social lubricant, a way to acknowledge unpleasant realities without scaring everyone away.
It’s important today to remember that euphemism can also be a mind-numbing linguistic evasion of responsibility.
The classic Watergate-era dodge was Nixon White House spokesman Ron Ziegler’s admission that, “Mistakes were made.” President Reagan borrowed that one for the Iran-Contra scandal, and New York Times columnist (and former Nixon speechwriter) William Safire called the phrase, “passive-evasive.”
Well these days, leaders won’t even go that far!
Rather than admit they did something wrong, they say, “We don’t always get it right.”
“Compliance is a journey—especially in new sectors like crypto,” said Chanpeng Zhao, CEO of the cryptocurrency exchange Binance in a blog post this week, after his firm had been censured by regulators of several nations. “We also recognize that with the growth comes more complexity and more responsibility … As a four-year-old startup, Binance still has a lot of room to grow. Binance has grown very quickly and we haven’t always got everything exactly right, but we are learning and improving every day.”
Haven’t always … gotten everything … exactly right.
“Nobody’s perfect,” my mother used to say to me. When I was six.
Indeed, some CEOs even predict they won’t get everything right.
The new Amazon CEO Andy Jassy told employees in a letter this week, “I started at Amazon when there were just ~250 employees. We now have more than 1.2M employees. It’s happened fast, especially over the last decade as our businesses have grown. At our size, at the pace we’re trying to move for customers, and with our penchant for experimenting, we won’t get everything right. We have issues that we need to work on—some we can solve quickly, others will take longer. But, please know that I care, and that we will work together to make Amazon better every day.”
But keep your seatbelts fastened, because mistakes will be made!
When Google was accused of ethics problems by a former executive awhile back, CEO Sundar Pichai reflected, “We don’t always get it right. But we are, as a company, committed to learning from these moments.”
As the leaders of Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei surely did, as well, after their issues in New Jersey in 1936.
“We don’t always get it right,” admitted Wikimedia CEO Katharine Maher, about disinformation leaking into Wikipedia entries.
“As CEOs, we don’t always get it right,” wrote BlackRock CEO Larry Fink in his 2019 annual letter to CEOs on the importance of corporate responsibility.
And when a family’s French bulldog died after United Airlines flight attendants insisted it ride in the airless overhead compartment a few years ago, United CEO Oscar Munoz said, “As hard as we try, it’s obvious we don’t always get it right.”
United Airlines, and Air Penguin both.
“Kowalski! Casualty report!” the pilot demanded after the crash landing.
“Only two passengers unaccounted for, Skipper.”
“That’s a number I can live with! Good landing, Boys!”