The website rollout of your signature achievement is an unmitigated disaster. And the chancellor of Germany learns the United States has been poking its spying nose into her smart phone text messages. Time to take a vacation or time to shoulder the blame?
Most blunders don't rise to the level of those facing President Obama. And regardless how he chooses to respond, the smart response for the person in charge is to own the problem, even if it isn't his or her fault.
Granted, this is easier said than done. Legal advisors may warn against blindly accepting liability. Financial advisors may urge caution to avoid fines and costly restitution. Your own inner voice may resist taking the blame, wishing instead to transfer all your energy to the end of your finger pointed in someone else's direction.
However, there is abundant evidence that people can forgive mistakes, but resent equivocation or dissembling. Mostly what people want to hear is a little sympathy for what happened and a lot of action to fix the problem so it doesn't happen again.
Owning a problem shouldn't be seen as a weak or defensive posture. Stepping up and taking charge can project a confidence-building image, an image based on action rather than ambivalence.
Most mistakes aren't monumental. Your response far outweighs the actual consequence of the mistake. Think about the social media firestorms that occurred over the corporate responses to immature or thoughtless actions by employees, which in and of themselves would have had only a moment in the digital sunlight.
When the stakes are larger — for example, your spill has polluted a stream or bay — it is even more important to be aggressive in getting ahead of the issue. Own it and fix it. That will eliminate any fuzziness about what to say. Your actions will be the narrative.
If you have any doubts about how to respond, put yourself in the shoes of your customer or stakeholder and evaluate your actions and your words. If you can see the mistake in their eyes, the solution will be more obvious and your ownership will be an opportunity to build trust, not lose it.
Courts decide fault. The courts of public opinion look for people brave and smart enough to own problems and solve them.