N.J. Governor Chris Christie offered a series of apologies in response to disclosures that some of his top political deputies were responsible for a stunt of petty political revenge that inconvenienced tens of thousands of commuters and residents of Fort Lee on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.
Nothing in the emerging scandal as I write this suggests that Gov. Christie orchestrated the stunt or knew about it before or after the fact.
He has denied such knowledge. So for the purposes of this discussion, let’s consider just what apology is appropriate for a senior executive who has no hands-on direct responsibility for the offense.
In ethical terms, for what conduct does Christie have standing to apologize?
Christie actually was very precise in his apology, which he offered in two pieces.
First, he admitted that his administration acted badly and that every citizen of New Jersey, every resident of Fort Lee, and every member of the New Jersey legislature deserved an apology. This unconditional apology was offered by Christie acting as the senior executive of the state.
Second, he was precise in offering a more personal apology for his personal conduct—namely his failure “to understand the true nature of this problem.”
Failure to Act
A lot of sins fall into that failure and I wished he had been more specific in naming them. It’s fine that he said he was “embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” but his apology would have been stronger if he apologized for what he did as well as what he failed to do.
As part of his apology, he fired his deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly. He accepted the resignation of a commissioner on the Port Authority, and he reprimanded Bill Stepien, his 2013 campaign manager, not to apply to become state Republican Party chairman or to work with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie will soon lead.
Accountability is good. But Christie could have done more to hold himself more accountable.
For example, he hired these aides and trusted them. Did he serve the people of New Jersey well in doing so? He could have apologized for making some very poor hiring decisions.
Culture Trumps Everything
More pointedly, he could have pondered to what extent, if any, the culture his leadership style represented, may have contributed to a climate in which his aides thought such stunts could possibly be defended. A wise leader understands that the signals he or she sends help determine organizational culture.
This is a tough conversation to have. Indeed, Christie is aware that his reputation as a bully may well be implicated in the offensive conduct. It does not help any apology for the offender to deny—as Christie did—that he is not a bully.
Let’s see how the investigation plays out.
Unless there’s a smoking gun that Christie knew about the stunt or covered it up, I expect he will survive politically.
But if he wants to get the matter behind him, he must start looking deep within himself to see if he can connect the dots between the governor he is and the actions of his deputies. Only when he can connect the dots can he take the necessary action—apology being just the first step—can he and the voters of New Jersey move forward together.