Who knows if Tiger Woods will ever become a model husband, exemplary Buddhist, or remade role model. But his well-crafted, 14-minute public apology is already a classic checklist for how to tell if you suffer from hubris.
Do you feel that success entitles you to privileges unavailable to others? Hubris. Do the rules apply to everybody but you? Hubris. Has your hard work earned you special dispensation? Hubris. "I knew my actions were wrong," Woods said. "But I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply…. I felt I was entitled." Those special privileges now entitle Woods both to beg his wife, sponsors, and fans to forgive his tawdry affairs and to continue with forced therapy until he's out of the doghouse.
Toyota is now living through a Tiger Woods moment. The automaker was so successful for a decade that it practically floated above mere mortals. The company almost seemed to grow without trying, as its Detroit competitors self-destructed and consumers clamored for Toyota's reliable cars. A half century of methodical, almost fanatical attention to detail helped forge such a strong reputation that customers and peers began to take Toyota's quality for granted. While its chief rival, General Motors, was plunging toward bankruptcy, Toyota was banking profits that peaked at a heady $18 billion in 2008.
As we're learning, Toyota started to feel it didn't have to abide by the same rules as everybody else. It's still not clear what exact problems may have caused episodes of "unintended acceleration" in some of the carmaker's most popular models, but it's obvious that Toyota refused to acknowledge problems and resisted costly recalls until there was virtually no choice. Woods failed to notice warning signs that the House of Tiger was about to collapse, such as a 2007 tabloid story about his mistresses that his managers were able to squelch. Toyota missed warning signs, too: consumer complaints dating back years, government investigations, and gradual declines in Toyota's quality ratings. Woods dismissed anybody who failed to support the image of excellence that brought him multimillions worth of endorsement deals. Toyota dismissed thousands of customers who complained about ruinous sludge buildup in their engines and other problems, convinced that it knew better and that its famed engineering was above reproach.
[See 6 myths about car recalls.]
It wasn't, and Toyota now needs to beg for forgiveness, as Woods finally did—except that it can't, exactly. Sure, there have been some generic apologies for letting the firm's customers down, but Toyota can't come right out and admit that it screwed up on any specific problem, because it would surely be used against the automaker in lawsuits—one problem Woods is lucky not to have. So Toyota has to shamble along for a while, sputtering overlawyered corporatespeak and leaving the public unsatisfied, just as the mute, blindsided Woods did in the early days of his own scandal.
But other than that, Tiger Woods could be writing the script for Toyota, with just a few substitutions necessary. Both must go through a kind of flogging to find redemption—Woods at the hand of a wronged and irate wife, Toyota at the altar of posturing politicians. Both must regain public trust after frittering it away. Woods has therapy and the grounding influence of Buddhism to help regain his moral balance; Toyota has a top-to-bottom outside review of its practices—and billions in lost sales, which are a sure way to reform any corporation.
[See why Tiger Woods will come roaring back.]
In a forthcoming chapter of these respective sagas, each party is likely to mount an impressive comeback, once the penance is over and the hubris has been banished. Woods will return to golf, and there's no reason to think his talent or competitive drive will be diminished. They may even be enhanced. Toyota will double-down on the engineering and quality control that brought it to the peak of its industry and come up with new ways to win over skeptical customers—which is how Toyota went from pipsqueak to giant in the first place. Toyota and Tiger Woods are down for now, but don't expect them to stay there. Behind the hubris, after all, is world-class capability.