Apologies. I have been reflecting recently on what it means to apologise as a public servant leader. Apologising for things that happen under your watch has always seemed very straight forward to me. As the leader of an organisation, you take the good with the bad. If you are prepared to take credit for the fantastic things your organisation delivers day in and day out under your leadership but without your direct involvement, you must also be prepared to own the mistakes, which again you may have had no direct involvement in. Own it, fix it, learn from it. Sometimes owning it, being accountable, means stepping away and allowing the organisation to fix and learn under a new leader.
But what if the wrong, the hurt, the error was made in the past, even the distant past, under a different leader? Is it fair to ask a current chief executive to explain, own, and apologise for the errors or omissions that occurred under someone else’s watch?
While it may not feel fair, in my view, the answer is yes. Ultimately it comes down to being part of the long history of the Crown. As a public servant leader, when you take up the leadership of a public sector agency, you inherit the whakapapa of that organisation. Sometimes that whakapapa is long and convoluted – a lineage resulting from previous incarnations of organisations, from mergers or de-mergers. Regardless, as the leader of an organisation, you take on responsibility for the legacy you inherit – the good, the bad, and the shameful. Understanding the hurt caused and apologising for it is often the first step in owning, fixing, and learning from errors of the past. Only then can the organisation, and those affected, move on to create a new legacy.