Thursday, August 20, 2009

No Excuse Leadership

You know what I hate? Excuses...can’t stand ‘em...won’t tolerate them. You know...stuff like this:

Why didn’t you get an answer? Well…I called and they didn’t call me back.
Why is this project behind schedule? We had a problem with our supplier, and then we had some weather delays, and….
Why didn’t you get me that report I asked for? I didn’t have time.
Where’s the data you promised me? Oh, I’m sorry. My computer wasn't cooperating.

I remember it differently and remember it like it was yesterday. My first leadership lesson as a new cadet at West Point:

“New Cadet Magness…you have three responses to any question: Yes sir, No sir, and No excuse sir. Do you understand?”
“Well…I think I do.”
“New Cadet…that is not one of your three responses! Get down and give me 20!”

Three responses….and one of them was “No Excuse.” Just cut to the chase. Don’t waste words trying to explain the unexplainable. Just admit your failure and move on. If you are responsible for doing something and did not, don't insult others by trying to weasel out of it or spreading the blame around to others.

How different would our world be if excuses weren't the norm? People would have to take responsibility for their own actions. Leaders would be forced to reconcile their shortcomings without blaming others. Politicians would have to stand and deliver held accountable when they don't.

So let's all sign up for this approach -- Excuses: Don’t offer them; don’t tolerate them.

Did you accomplish your mission?
No ma’am.
Why not?
No excuse, ma’am. I knew what I was supposed to do and I did not get it done.
That’s right, no excuse. Now…git ‘er done.

Is this so hard? I really don’t think so. In fact, I have been a part of an organization (the US Army) in which this attitude is part of its DNA. There I have learned that 99.9% of excuses are not valid. You didn’t have time? Really? Did you eat? Sleep? Missed a deadline? Why didn’t you build in time for contingencies? Failed to accomplish the mission? Whose fault is that? That’s right…no excuse! This lesson goes right along with our last one (see I’m with Stupidly!). When you mess up…no excuses. When you “bone up” – own up.

Now, don't get me wrong. It is always important that we seek to understand why our teammates cannot complete their tasks. All too often it is something that we could have influenced and thus is as much our fault as theirs! Understanding issues associated with workload allocation, distribution of resources, time management, lack of clarity are critical. My point is people must begin by accepting responsibility for their own actions, not looking first for someone else to blame. Most excuses fall into this category!

So how does one learn to operate in an environment where only three responses are available? Well…they git ‘er done. Then there is no need for excuses! They build a culture that tolerates nothing less than success...and where individuals accept responsibility for their own shortcomings. Teams will spend more time and energy winning the game than...playing the blame game. Three responses are plenty in that sort of culture. And I have found it to be a lot easier than pushups! (Or at least that is my excuse).

No excuses! That’s Leader Business!

For more on this topic, see "No Excuse Leadership," by fellow West Pointer and Army Ranger Brace Barber and "Leading From the Front; No Excuse Leadership Tactics for Women" by former Marines Angie Morgan and Courtney Lynch.
Image courtesy of


Suzanne said...

Excuses are everywhere!!! Even in this economy where people should especially "step up to the plate" to try to outshine others, it's just not happening.

Success takes hard work and for alot of people failure is the much easier route. Well guess what? When you choose to fail, someone is likely waiting to pick up the pieces and reap the rewards. So why not do it right the first time and take the lead. And keep taking the lead, and hope that it will become contagious and maybe, just maybe, one day, those excuses will be a thing of the past!

Tom Magness said...

Thanks Suzanne. I love your attitude. Too many others result to the blame game. Your approach is the proven approach to success. Hard work, leadership, perseverence -- those are the elements of success that are far superior to excuses! Thanks for your comments!

J. Mark Bangerter said...

I just started following you a little while back. I came across your blog when I was doing a little research into The Warrior Ethos and added the RSS feed. I never served in the military, but I appreciate the experiences you bring here. You make a very good point about no excuses. This is something that I have strived to become for a long time. Many times when someone asks me about something, I say, "I don't have an excuse. It just didn't get done." There really are no good excuses. The sooner that we as a society can learn this and begin to take responsibility for our own actions, the sooner our society will right itself.

Tom Magness said...

Thanks Mark. You are so right. So often our shortcomings, individually or collectively, are someone else's problem. We blame our predecessors, the system, the referees, or anyone else but ourselves. We need to start by examining our own role in our problems and failures. Admitting that we have "No Excuse" is a good first step! Thanks for stopping by! TM

Anonymous said...

Just found your site today.

This ties in the Worth's Battalion Orders and Schofield's Definition of Discipline. Amazing what one is forced to remember as a Plebe and sees the reasoning later in life.

Great set of Articles
David Rocha
USMA '84

Tom Magness said...

Thanks David. As we were "cut from the same cloth," I know you appreciate, as do I, the "no excuse, sir" response! I'm glad we learned it (and all the other stuff they made us memorize) at an early age! Hooah! TM