Posted by: Trina | August 13, 2009

A “Teachable Moment” Missed

“…My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what’s called a teachable moment, where all of us – instead of pumping up the volume – spend a little more time listening to each other…”

(Source: President Barack H. Obama)

Dear Friends,

This week’s Monday Coaching Gem revisits the subject of dealing effectively with mistakes.

We can all expect to make our fair share of professional mistakes, and that is as it should be. Little would be more detrimental to our further development than letting the fear of ever making a mistake condemn us to a life where our only interest is to “play it safe”.

BUT: What rôle should leadership play in turning a mistake into valuable teachable moment?

Taking Advantage of A ‘Teachable Moment”

  • Immediately acknowledge criticism
  • Take your critics and their criticism seriously
  • Stop doing whatever is offensive. ASAP!
  • Avoid the temptation to slip into “auto-defense” mode
  • Seek honest dialogue with a representative group of your critics
  • Apologize publicly. And in earnest

Oh, and it’s legal to talk about what you are now doing better based on the insights you’ve gained by tackling your mistakes proactively and head-on!

Worst Practice*

The German Green Party has traditionally prided itself in being very involved in securing and/or protecting the rights of women, immigrants and people of color in Germany. In strange contradiction to their party platform, a branch of the Green Party located in the western city of Kaarst is using the poster shown above in their current bid to break the dominance of the local Christian Democratic Party in the Kaarst city hall.

On their website (these comments have since been removed), the Green Party in Kaarst cited their desire to be provocative and cutting edge in defense of their motif choice. They attempted to minimalize the criticism of their poster motif by claiming it was limited to “individuals voices”, as well as citing feedback from anonymous people with “an immigrant background” who had seen nothing wrong with the motif; finding it, instead, almost “anti-racist”.

Despite a ever-increasing wave of protest from individuals and organizations – as well as member of their own party across the nation – the Kaarst branch continued to hold fast to their pure intentions on choosing this motif. Not only have they refused to apologize for this clearly inappropriate motif, in an attempt to turn the tables, they now feel themselves to be the victims of censorship.

At no time has the inherent racism or sexism in their motif been openly acknowledged by the local branch of the Green Party in Kaarst or the leadership in the state of North-Rhine-Westphalia. At no time was an apology issued, instead the party chooses to rest on the laurels of their formal party platform.

Best Practice

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Gates for disorderly conduct after being seen forcing his way into his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, invoked a firestorm of debate about the police treatment of minorities. When President Obama personally became involved in the discourse surrounding this case, many were dismayed. Especially his remark that the police had reacted “stupidly” in arresting Gates was the subject of ire – not only from the police department directly involved.

Prof. Gates’ arrest – in a community already rife with friction between the police department and minority communities – was made particularly poignant by the constellation of the people directly involved. Prof. Gates is a renown African-American scholar and Officer James Crowley has himself taught classes on diversity to members of the police force.

Prof. Gates was very vocal in his allegations that his arrest was racially motivated.

Although all charges against Prof. Gates were soon dropped, Officer Crowley refused to apologize.

In the end, President Obama invited both men to the White House to have a beer with him and Vice-President Joseph Biden. This was not only in an attempt to broker some kind of positive outcome in this situation, but also to facilitate a public ‘teachable moment’ in the ongoing American dialogue on race.

Did Officer Crowley ever apologize to Prof. Gates? I don’t believe so. Did Prof. Gates apologize to Officer Gates? I doubt it. But both men were open to accepting the President’s invitation, and their families ended their day touring the White House. Together.

Gates and Crowly have also agreed to stay in contact. Word is, they may even go to a ball game together.


*full disclosure: I have personally contacted the local and national leadership of the Green Party here in Germany, as well as in the UK, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Norway and have blogged about the issue.

(This blog entry was originally published at



  1. […] of other minorities (see my blog posts on the Green Party campaign poster in Kaarst here and here). This is one of the main tenets of resistance to true […]

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