What John Mackey can learn from John Wayne

July 19, 2007: 9:14 AM ET

wayne.jpgI just finished watching "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon," John Ford's valentine to the U.S. Cavalry. It's a good movie, not a great one, not the equal of "Stagecoach" or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," both of which serve less cheese with their meat. I've been watching Ford westerns lately because they had an enormous impact on the Japanese samurai movies of the 1950s, which in many ways offer the greatest explorations of corporate life ever, equal to Shakespeare's plays in their understanding of organizational behavior. Watch Kurasawa's "Sanjuro" sometime if you want to see what I mean. The last five minutes, in its exquisite mix of swift violence and perfectly replicate at least one Board meeting I recall from the late 1990s.

Be that as it may. In "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" John Wayne delivers a nugget that precisely mirrors a comment that just came in from Me Again of Seattle, who I'm guessing is writing to me under a fake name, like most of you do. Me Again's observation was about my thoughts on the subject of John Mackey, the green, leafy head of Whole Foods (WFMI), who was caught pumping his corporate mojo on a chat board under an anagram of his wife's name. "He should of never apologized for what he did," writes Mr. or Ms. Again. "If you are going to do something like that, one should never apologize and by doing so is admitting to guilt on something that he shouldn't have to admit guilt for. We live in a country built on free speech."

Free speech? Whatever. If anything, the quality of speech on the web goes beyond freedom into license. The real issue in our vast and thorny media culture is the utility of apology. And on that matter, my belief is more clearly set forth by the Duke to a raw recruit: "Never say yer sorry, Mister," he growls. "It's a sign of weakness."

We live in an culture of apology. Apology, sometimes tearful, sometimes not, followed by rehab of some kind, usually, or a highly publicized prison stay, and after that a certain pleasant amnesia as we all turn our attention to new miscreancies we can feast on. At times, these apologies are enough, and many naughty boys and girls are reinstated, if we like them, or they are pretty, or good enough copy. That's the way it's supposed to work, anyway.

More often these days, though, the reward for apology seems to be a higher level of punishment for he or she who shows a pink, tender underside to the beast. The cycle has shifted. Apologies seem to enrage the creature, not mollify it, until the sorry apologizer spirals down into the doom that his or her weakness virtually demanded.

The big maw isn't satisfied by a simple "I'm sorry" anymore. Perhaps only the kind of apology that will be accepted at this point is the samurai version explored in the classic Japanese movies I love, where all the blood is black on white, the moment when the hero or villain, in recognition of fate or his own misdeeds, quite literally falls on his sword and reels back into good grace with his guts falling out all over his hands. Whoops! Ouch. All is well.

Those who don't apologize do better, I think, all things considered. Two individuals come to mind who might have apologized if they listened to the wrong advisers. The first is Barry Bonds. He's the only player who has suffered under intense scrutiny on the use of performance enhancing drugs and did not buckle. All the others who have, who stepped forward, talked with Congress, the press, their mommies? All toast. Did they in any way benefit from having unburdened themselves? They did not. And then there's our Commander in Chief. Many might say that in the course of his Presidency, he may have done some things for which he might have apologized. Katrina. WMDs. That kind of thing. But has he ever offered even the slightest sigh of remorse? Nope. And you know what? I think it's working for him. In 20 years, I expect to see history books that bear no resemblance to my perception of what's going on right now... because nobody has apologized for anything so far, and created that record.

I'm going to suggest that everybody who lives in the line of fire consider this strategy real serious, like. "Never say yer sorry, mister," no matter what stupid thing you've gotten yourself into. "It's a sign of weakness."

And weakness, my friends, is the one sin we just can't seem to forgive.

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