As someone who writes apologies for a living – apologies for leaders and high-profile people who’ve found themselves in crisis – I’ve waited for Ellen DeGeneres’ apology with anticipation and curiosity.
This summer, Ellen and her staff were accused of fostering a toxic work environment and the news ran wild with the story for several months, uncovering a host of serious incidents of Ellen or her staff acting counter to her “be kind to one another” mantra. There’s a lot to be said for how unfortunate it is that we wait to see someone falter and then come for them – but I won’t go there today.
The point of this post is to share my thoughts watching Ellen finally address these accusations on her first day back for the 18th season of her show. She kicked it off with a direct response to what she joked was her ‘great summer.’
Ellen walked the fine line of addressing her humanity (you aren’t always one thing, sometimes you can be sad or frustrated) while promising that she and her staff would do better this season. She peppered in jokes to lighten the heaviness of the topic in what appeared to be an effort to set the tone for season 18 with both accountability and the sense of the fun and joy she and her show are so well known for.
All the right ingredients for a public apology… except there was no real apology. Maybe she didn’t feel the need to over state her role or let the apology stand on it's own, and that is 100% her right – especially if its part of her truth. How the audience choses to metabolize her statement is also 100% their right. Regardless, as someone who not only helps to write these sorts of apologies, but who has doubled down on only doing so if her clients agree to be coached to address the core of their own issues – I saw something else in this statement today – fear.
As we look at the statements and apologies that are coming in day after day from disgraced CEOs, celebrities, and leaders it’s become increasingly clear to me that we’re still working from a very old playbook. This playbook instructs you to vaguely attempt to address the issue and state your accountability without actually showing your process, your vulnerability and your intentions. Then you hope it goes away and don’t follow up to show how you’ve taken this hard lesson and grown from it, as a leader or as a brand.
Let me be even clearer: I believe that leaders and public figures are still afraid to take full responsibility (even though they say “I take full responsibility”) because they’re afraid if they completely own it they will not be forgiven and their hard-won reputations will be tarnished. At it’s worst this fear manifests as a lack of culpability, making the problem someone else’s fault. We all do this to some extent. Finding someone else to pull into our storm so that we don’t have to own the debris we cause by ourselves.
So what’s the difference in what Ellen did and what I’m advocating for? I wish that Ellen’s response could have clued us into the weeks of work she’s done to examine herself and how/why she allowed people who work so hard for her to be treated so badly. I have no doubt that she did process this – she seems like a good person who would care deeply about how people in her employ feel (she even said so in her statement today). But then why not tell us this more specifically? “I lost track,” “It got so busy, I missed the point of it all sometimes,” “my own anxiety sometimes makes me hard to work for and I can see what that might do to people.” She sort of said parts of this – but not directly, not fully and peppered with so many jokes it was hard to know she took it seriously.
This is NOT a bash Ellen post. It’s about looking at someone who so clearly wants to do good – despite her own shortcomings -- shortcomings, mind you that we ALL have – that she probably is deeply hard on herself. So hard that the fear of really owning it all – in front of her fans and employees – feels like handing over the baton to the rest of us.
This is why I purpose coach. Because I want the leaders I work with to own their own humanity. To dive into their chaos – their darkness – and come out with a deeper sense of themselves. Then to hold up that truth for the world to see – so they can inspire others to be that fundamentally self-aware, that deeply accountable and that seriously dedicated to working on their own journey, so that others can love their own humanity – all of it, even the dark parts. I also want leaders to see that while this work feels hard, it is in the doing of it that we can do what’s ultimately best for ourselves and for others – to move the old energy out and really give ourselves the chance to build from something good and meaningful.
I know Ellen and her team have learned a lot from this and I believe change will be made. I just hope that those with the power to influence how we see even ourselves can show us that it’s OK to be human, to own our mistakes and to be very clear about how we made them and what we’ve learned about ourselves through them.
That’s real love and leadership. I’m glad I get to help people on that enlightened journey.
By the way, call BS on this please. If you haven’t watched Ellen’s season 18 opening monologue, I encourage you to watch and let me know what you think.