New Jersey governor Chris Christie made a bold move January 9 when he swiftly and thoroughly apologized for his team’s political “prank” which involved needlessly closing the George Washington Bridge in September 2013. The supposed political “retribution” caused severe traffic jams between Fort Lee, New Jersey and New York City for four days and is currently under criminal investigation. Christie took to national television for almost two hours to express his regret, but more importantly, to demonstrate what true leadership in a time of difficulty should look like.
THE RIGHT WORDS
First, Christie took responsibility as the head of his team saying: “I am responsible for what happens under my watch – the good and the bad. And when mistakes are made, then I have to own up to them…My government fell short and I take full responsibility and apologize for it.” Aside from his duties as the leader, he also admitted to his personal mistakes, honestly declaring that after the outcry in September, he merely assigned a few staff to investigate the incident for an hour – not the proper recourse to uncover the truth.
The governor also made it extremely clear that he was not a part of – or even aware of – the vendetta his team waged against Fort Lee. In an effort to appear fully transparent, he also fielded questions directly from the media and answered every single one.
With this open and genuine message, Christie has commenced the difficult, but honorable undertaking of a proper apology: his willingness to accept responsibility rather than cast blame demonstrates his integrity and steadfastness in the face of public anger.
THE RIGHT ACTIONS
The governor has also taken the appropriate action to resolve the issue: he terminated his deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, whose involvement in the lane closures surfaced in emails. On August 13 Kelly wrote to a Port Authority appointee, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Christie said he felt “embarrassed and humiliated” and “betrayed” by Kelly’s actions. He also asked Bill Stepien, one of his campaign strategists, to resign. Furthermore, as the criminal investigation for possible reckless endangerment charges begins, Christie has announced that he encourages his remaining staff to fully cooperate with the police.
In addition, the governor met face-to-face with Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich to apologize for the actions of his staff. CNN reports that Sokolich described the governor as “gracious and apologetic” at their meeting, where he also held a second new conference in Fort Lee to apologize directly to its citizens.
Words without actions mean very little, but Christie’s swift reaction to the accusations demonstrate his understanding of the gravity of the situation, as well as his willingness to make it up to the thousands of people affected. By firing those responsible and apologizing directly, Gov. Christie demonstrates courage and his earnest quest to find resolutions.
THE RIGHT SENTIMENT
What makes Christie’s television appearance so successful is the sincerity with which he addressed the public. He remained true to himself while also acknowledging the severity of the situation. Of Christie’s apology, Ari Fleischer on Anderson Cooper 360 said: “I thought he was believable. I thought he was humble. He was his usual blunt self. I thought he dealt with it really well.” Others have concurred; though not everyone may be in favor of Christie’s politics, or his sharply passionate style, most can agree his apology was sincere and his handling of the affair effective.
By approaching the public in an open and genuine matter, Governor Christie has shown true leadership: the ability to come forward and admit mistakes, the resolve to prevent these mistakes from reoccurring, and the drive to proactively create solutions to repair the damage that has been done. Everyone makes mistakes: what sets great leaders apart is the way they face them.