Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Failing" Leaders

I had to call a senior official in Washington D.C. this week. You see, one of our projects was not turning out the way it should. People had been led to believe something that was no longer accurate. We had to correct the record. But instead of making a lot of excuses, blaming the system, or putting fault on my predecessors, I opened with a line I use way too often: "I screwed up."

I have a lot of company these days:

"I screwed up," said Olympic champion Michael Phelps for his poor judgement in using drugs.

"I screwed up," said baseball star Alex Rodriguez for his use of performance enhancing drugs during three years in Texas.

"I screwed up," said President Obama for suggesting that it was okay to not pay taxes by standing by some of his (non-tax paying) cabinet appointees.

And whether or not they will admit it, there is a lot of mea culpa to go around with the failings of so many businesses, banks, state governments, schools, etc. Occasionally (though not as often as they should), the leaders of those enterprises will let people know that they "screwed up."

No blog post of mine gets as many google search hits as my writings about "My Greatest Failures." I've screwed up plenty. And it looks like I have a lot of company out there based on all the searches on those words!

But there is no way to sugar coat it. Nor should we try. Start by acknowledging failure, by stepping up and accepting the burden of leadership and recognizing that the shortcomings of the team begin with the shortcomings of the leader. Step up and take it. Let people know you screwed up. Then learn from it, fix it, make corrections.

I appreciate the President's use of those words. That sort of refreshing candor is worthy of emulation by all leaders. It is good to see others following suit.

Now, let's see if the financial industry CEOs who testify before Congress today can do the same! Let's see if the people who got us into this mess (and there are many who share in this failure -- from people who overspent to governments and financial institutions who did the same) can step up and accept blame for their actions. Let's see who else can open with, "I screwed up!"

I know that's how I would start on the road to recovery. That's Leader Business!


James T. Parsons said...

Hey Tom, I have found that the butt-chewing tends to be more quick if you just admit right off the bat, "I am sorry. I will do better." Often the first step (and longest one) in disciplinary interaction is your audience trying to get you to admit that.

I do think, though, that Americans also have to be more appreciative of such honesty over perfection. We sometimes get into the habit of expecting that we can achieve and hold long-term such perfection in all things. We are quick to trade out "less than perfect" in the hope that the next one will be "perfect" - only to be disappointed. While we all hope that our pilots are Sully, or that we have exceptional leaders, we also have to be ok with that fact that we would rather have the leader take a smart shot, make a mistake, confess error, and take a new course, than to assume that the people/audience/subordinates insist on perfection, rather than mistakes as "teachable moments."

While we leaders hope that our audience allow such mistakes to be such moments of learning, we likewise have to be willing to provide that to the subordinates below us.

I personally would rather have you leading with some mistakes of record, than almost anyone else I know. Leadership is more about character and judgment and I think that only comes from "teachable moments," not requiring unreachable perfection.

Take care. jtp.

Steve Harper said...

I just love your BLOG! Every single time I read it I learn something. That is what good BLOGS do you know. You just happen to be EXCEPTIONALLY good at it my friend.

Great post as always.

Oh and I screwed up. I think I owed you a response to an email a while back. I accept responsibility for that and have elected to make up for it by suggesting I buy you a beer next time you find your horse parked near the 'ol ranch. Whatda say?

Ripple On Brother!!!


P.S. You promised to tell me how your trip to Vietnam went. We do need to catch up soon!

Tom Magness said...


Brilliant as always. Those "teachable moments" are what defines us as leaders. With others it allows us to facilitate learning in others. In ourselves, these become the reference points for future opportunities that will (hopefully) allow us to demonstration growth and improvement.

I like to think that if you are not failing, you are not trying. Better to fail and come clean than to become so risk averse that nothing gets done! Thanks as always for being a part of this discussion, my friend.

Tom Magness said...

Thanks for stopping by, oh wise one! I will take you up on the offer to share a drink. Although I think I still owe you! I'll drop you a note and tell you about VN. Great time. TM