Friday, June 12, 2009

It’s the second one that will kill you


In a recent Leader is a Verb posting on the importance of being a positive role model and always putting the team ahead of self, I used the poor judgment of LeBron James after the Orlando-Cleveland series to highlight what not to do. MANY of you commented with various insights.

Having thought about it a few more days, I now believe there is an even more important leadership lesson to be learned from this drama, and it just may be still playing out. ALL leaders will make mistakes. If you do not make mistakes, you are not trying anything new or taking risks. The key is how does the leader who has made a mistake react and present the error in public. Mr. James tried to justify an obvious incorrect action and people saw right through it.

A couple years ago, a senior executive at a Fortune 100 company broke the law by talking to a government official about employment. Once uncovered, the two tried to say it did not happen. Both were imprisoned. When the CEO was asked what the leadership should learn from the ordeal, he said “you MAY BE fired for making a serious error, but you will ALWAYS be fired for covering it up.” It is the second mistake that gets otherwise good people into trouble. Just stand up and admit what happened. We tend to accept imperfection.

Have you seen someone admit a serious error, and was forgiven?

34 comments:

geoff said...

Haven't seen the humility of admission, but forgiveness is far more likely for the repentant than the recalcitrant.

Pride is always the impeder of confession.

Pride is a poisoner of persons, resilient in its self-aggrandismen and is fed by position.

Opposite to 'TEAM' for leaders 'PRIDE' actually has I in the middle of it.

http://www.soulsupply.com/soulsense-pride-b

Marc Morgenstern said...

Sure. Back in 1940, after the outbreak of the Second World War, Winston Churchill, following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain on 10 May 1940, became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and led Britain to victory against the Axis powers. Churchill was always noted for his speeches, which became a great inspiration to the British people and embattled Allied forces.

After losing the 1945 election after the end of the war to Clement Atlee, he became Leader of the Opposition.

In 1951, the people of Great Britain realized they had made a serious mistake in 1945, and he again became Prime Minister before finally retiring in 1955.

At no time did Churchill express any rancor or bitterness at the decisions of the British people. A true leader and a gentleman.

Dean Call said...

John,

that's an excellent post and one needs to look no further than baseball to see the differences. Players like Andy Petite, Jason Giambi and even A-Rod used PEDs, all admitted it, all apologized, all still play. Roger Clemens, and Barry bonds refuse to admit it, even when faced with over whelming evidence and they are unwelcome former superstars under investigation.

Michele Moscati said...

I AGREE WITH YOU WHEN I MAKE A MISTAKE I ALWAYS ADMIT IT TO MY CUSTOMER OR SUPPLIER

Lisa C. Clark said...

Hi John,

I'll go out on a limb here and mention President Obama's several Cabinet post picks who withdrew over personal financial indiscretions uncovered in the vetting process. Depending on your read, his honeymoon after "I screwed up" continued and political capital was intact for hitting those misfires head-on -- a plain-speaking style that I, personally, advocate as all leaders will mess up and it's those who try to not acknowledge the elephant in the room who look like the emperor (not) wearing any new clothes.

Sad part about the Fortune 100 CEO quote you mention above is that the gentleman should have learned that lesson ... in first grade. And THAT, to me, is what makes such an individual both laughable and pathetic.

A true leader has a reputation for accomplishment based on behaving with character -- not for touting what s/he could get away with to the harm of others.

barbara slim said...

Being human, we all make mistakes....but the problem is that we also have a human trait of refusing to admit that the mistake was made!
Coming from a manufacturing background, I probably find it easier to say "I've cocked up" as in manufacturing - it happens........quite often!!
The idea is to admit, and CORRECT, not hide and lie in the process....
Nobody is perfect - otherwise we'd be robots......

Only people that do not have confidence in themselves try the second trip......

David Mitchell said...

Bill Clinton.

Dave Aronson said...

And the Watergate *coverup* is what got Nixon in much worse hot water, than the actual breakin.

Bob Dixon said...

John, I've been fortunate to be an invited guest speaker on Leadership to graduate and MBA classes at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Georgia Tech and other company and organizations. There is slide I show that talks about the Characteristics of a Leader - part of that slide is below

Not All Managers Make Good Leaders
Leaders Look for Common Ground and Common Understanding
Leaders are Intellectually Honest

Leaders Make Decisions Based On What Is Good For The Organization – Not What Is Good For Themselves

Corporate Scandals are a Failure in Leadership – Not a Failure of the Corporation or most of the people who work there

Leaders Are Able To Inspire And Motivate People To Give 100%

Leaders Care About People

People Want To Follow Leaders

Leaders Recognize Success – and Accept Responsibility for the Failures

Leaders Learn From Their Mistakes

Leaders Are Not Always The Smartest Person In The Room – And They Know It

Leaders Are Not Always Right And They Know It

Leaders create a positive legacy for the Next Generation

Bill Frazier said...

Integrity and admitting being wrong quickly goes a long way. I just got through constructing a downtown street project with many local businesses and the public watching everything. There were errors on the plans that we remedied in the field. I took full responsibility for any errors, oversights, and mistakes. In admitting right away, everyone was quick to forgive and allow leeway to my shortcomings as a human being. We all make mistakes, and we all know that, but sorry to say, some of us don't acknowledge that fact. The more mistakes I make, the more I learn and grow. Being honest and admitting your mistakes quickly builds trust, integrity, and maintains your position as a leader. Look at Barack, he's always admitting mistakes quickly, and it's working for him!

Tom Marek said...

Bill is spot on. Integrity is priceless and is the basis for all of our working relationships with colleagues. When you're perceived to lack integrity, the procedural or legal consequences of any acitons (or lack ofaction...) are immaterial because you have lost the trust of your support network and very likely your job. So the bullet point summary would be - with out personal integrity, there is nothing.

Katja Rieger said...

I would totally agree with this and this reminds me of a previous manager I had, whom I admired tremendously. Some of the GE community should know him as well, Al Stanley. He always started the team meeting with a round-call for any potential compliance issues. If you had any, you needed to present to him what you will do about it. You could come to him for help to get things solved at any time. But beware if he knew about an issue in your area which you had not made transparent. That would be probably the most serious breach you could do. Lesson learned, nothing can be perfect, but everything needs to be transparent. That way you will be able to solve issues quicker and usually with the help of others.

David Kranch said...

I can't top that one...you win

Peggy Salvatore said...

Medical malpractice lawsuits are usually avoided when doctors and hospitals admit mistakes, apologize, attempt to correct the mistake and reimburse the patient. People like transparency. Healthy systems, and healthy relationships, are built on trust.

Sean Graham said...

"I did not have sex with that woman."

David Shirey said...

I think we can all think of dozens of examples of people who have committed a serious error and were forgiven with entertainment types leading the way.

In many ways, saying 'I'm sorry' has become a knee jerk reaction. We say it and our conscience is absolved. We have 'done the right thing' and admitted our mistake and now it is time for everyone else to say 'Oh, that's all right'. I'm not against saying I'm sorry, but I think there should be more emphasis on the fact that adults should be expected to seriously think about the consequences of their actions before they do them. I think people should sometimes be held accountable for what they do. Sometimes sorry isn't enough.

Tom Lockhart said...

I spent the first 27 years of my life never admitting a mistake. Then, in the course of a personal crisis, I learned that I had to take responsibility for my own actions. Since then, both personally and professionally, I have tried to always admit my mistakes and accept the consequences. Fortunately, my peers and superiors have always looked upon my mistakes as learning opportunities. By applying these "learning opportunities", I have become better at my job and our company has tighter controls on processes.

Jeff Pfouts said...

On the other hand...My daughter does not want to do her chores and constantly throws temper tantrums. A couple of minutes later she comes back with an apology in hopes of getting out of her time out. What she fails to realize that continued apologies without a change in the actions that caused the problem does not build integrity either.

Apologies must be balanced with the desire to see that the mistakes do not happen again and that is truly the part that builds integrity.

Denise Eaves said...

Your title intrigued me and I absolutely agree. Politics is a whole different kettle of fish, but consider the differences in how Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson handled their very public marital transgressions. One tried to cover it up and it was dragged out for a very long time, expensively; the other owned up, apologized and it was gone in about 15 minutes. I recognize that this is a huge over-simplification, but aren't most mistakes oversimplified in the looking back?
It is how they are communicated and handled that makes all the difference in the world. Honest mistake-makers are much more interesting and human than those folks on the pedestal.
DeniseEaves@people-sideconsulting.com

Paul McKelvey said...

Leaders' transgressions almost always involves a matter of trust. In those cases, it is even more important to admit the error in specific terms. That is the first step in regaining trust. Leaders are able to lead because someone trusts them enough to follow them.
Those who deny their mistakes, or attempt to disown and diminish their errors with a phrase like "mistakes were made" find it hard to build trust later.
When cover-ups are exposed, the wrath the miscreant tried to avoid is multiplied.

Vance Kotrla said...

To use another sports analogy, just look at the MLB players accused of steriods use, particularly in the Mitchell Report. Andy Pettitte, Brian Roberts, and others (Jason Giambi earlier) either came out and admitted what they'd done when caught, or at the very least apologized for "whatever they've done wrong," and they tended to be forgiven and taken out of the discourse.

People like Roger Clemens, who has loudly and vehemently proclaimed his innocence, haven't fared nearly as well. Rafael Palmiero, who now-infamously wagged his finger at Congress and said he'd never taken steroids then immediately tested positive for them, will probably never make it into the Hall of Fame now, despite his stats.

In the world of celebrity -- sports or otherwise -- this is an old lesson. I think it's well applied to business leadership situations, as you point out.

Stuart Rosenberg said...

I agree with Tom. When I was first started to work I enjoyed a mentor who's policy was...'mistakes happen as we are human but it is how we deal with those mistakes that make all the difference'. If we are open and honest about them and accept the consequences we will learn and adapt. Unfortunately, as opposite to Tom's experience I have been employed by some who shared and embraced that philosophy and other who did not. It is a simple thing to see in what types of company culture people will excel in.

Anthony (Tony) Noe said...

The points are well made that it is the way we react to a mistake that truly measures us as 'Leaders'.
We all must accept and possibly even 'preach' the concepts that 'to error is human', 'learn from your mistakes' and 'do not judge least you be judged'.
I have found that live and learn only applies if you pay attention. If you find yourself making the same mistake more than once, including especially trying to hide your error you might want to rethink if you are 'leader' or not. As John Maxwell says frequently, 'if no one is following, are you a leader?'
Keep the good thoughts coming.

Millard Humphreys said...

Yes I have seen persons make a serious mistake/error and it was ultimately forgiven. Both in my own career and in the broader business environment. But dealing with the situation immediately, the universe of potential actions is immediately expanded as one does not have to deal with the overriding objective of how to keep the problem undercover. Consider the example of dealing with a crisis evidenced by the manufacturers of Tylenol. Very early on they acknowledged the problem, admitted responsibility and proceeded to deal with it and the public in a forthright manner. What could have been at least a career ending decision, if not a fatal blow to the entire business, was resolved without significant fallout. This lesson is equally relevant on all levels of the organization. I do not think that it is so much we are accepting of imperfection, rather we cannot be at all accepting or tolerant of deceit or cover-up. Trust once lost is rarely recovered.

john mcelroy said...

You are spot on with the your comments.

Marianne Jennings, some you readers may recall, participated in several enterprise-wide annual training exercises. I recall her wit and simple phrases, one of which was, if i recall correctly, "truth percolates." The third paragraph of following link http://aga.typepad.com/aga/ethics/ has a few more of her "trade-marked" quotes.

v/r,

john mcelroy

Barry Bainton said...

John:

Good point that needs to be repeated and repeated. As children we learn that we can put off blame on a sibling if we are fast enough with the denial, the alibi, the excuse. Parents, in their role as leaders and leader models, should discourage such behavior as soon as they detect it. It may seem mean at the time, but unless the child learns the value of telling the truth and accepting responsibility early, getting away with a spilled glass of milk may end with a lost career and life's work in a moment denial. Habits once formed are hard to break.The sooner and frequency with which we learn that the second mistake, to deny responsibility for the first one is the greatest crime of all.

Barry

Dean Call said...

Great points. You can't use empty apologies to cover the fact that you continue to do what you have always done. You must not only take responsiblity for your actions, you must take direct and sincere actions to correct them. The trick isn't to think about how to get out of trouble, the trick is to think about how to prevent yourself from getting into trouble again.

John (Gary) Bednarz said...

Quite a number of years ago when HP was an instrumentation and technology company one of the basic management philosophies was that "the more decisions you made the more right your decisions would be", and those decisions that turned out to be wrong could simply be corrected. Compare that to some of the rampant apathy, avoidance and simple indecision that we run into on a daily basis and you start to wonder. If we don't take a progressive stance and decisive actions in our daily actions, what are we doing? Waiting for the clock to time out?

Ronald Opdenberg said...

I'd say that one needs to make mistakes. To learn, and grow. The outcome is indeed determined, not so much by the mistake, but how one deals with it.

Paul Korn said...

What you're really talking about here is lack of wisdom. Wisdom is something we all learn and making mistakes is part of what builds wisdom. Some people continue to put their own desires ahead of all else, continue making mistakes and don't gain wisdom. It takes wisdom to lead effectively, and without it, no telling where one is leading...

Matt Lee said...

Very true and convincing points. I think that working from a place of integrity in the first place will help you to stay away from getting in trouble the first time, and if your position is compromised, you can have the liberty to say that you did what you thought was best at the time.

Brian Randleman said...

I have a personal experience about how the second error would have caught me. My first error was that through oversight I failed to report an HR issue that I was made aware of in a timely manner. I was held accountable for my error - but when I wanted to apologize I was held back by my company from doing so. Although I deeply regretted my failure to the employee and to my whole team, I wasn't allowed to say I'm sorry which made me upset with the company. However if I had gone around their decision I would have surely been fired. So John is quite correct that the second error is the one that gets you.

A very valuable learning experience for me as a younger manager.

Howard Richman said...

In a recent blog posting, I made the following comment about Leaders versus Managers: "The difference between managers and Leaders is HUGE…senior Leaders get paid to help people see the way toward the solution, understand the priorities of the business, understand that priorities and business conditions change, and facilitate the change that’s needed to do the right thing. Leaders welcome dynamic changing environments, the challenges they face in trying to anticipate them, and the opportunity they present to establish a competitive advantage for the business."

I have always stated that leaders need to lead from the front (but not with their chin), and live by the philosophy "if you don't screw up every once in a while, you must not be doing anything". The difference is that great leaders back this up, and back their people up, when things go wrong for the right reasons. When they demonstrate a willingness to expand the envelope, or practice boundaryless behavior in solving problems across functions from an end-to-end process approach, they are bound to make mistakes and misjudgments. Great leaders not only accept this, but also encourage and reward people for this behavior whether they succeed or fail. They do so because they know that all change is painful to someone, and that nothing worth while is ever easy.

Howard Richman
howard@levelfieldenterprises.com

Jayasankar Pillai said...

The ultimate and the last function of a leader is to make his position redundant.
He needs to build a line of leaders to take up his cause and absolve his duties to the next line of leadership.

Business, governments and state who have not followed this principle have suffered in failed administration, unrest and chaos among the principles being governed or managed

Just thought this has to be kept in mind by all leaders and aspiring leaders. Many other causes/functions and orginisations need you and you should never cling to your kingdom. Taking analogies from personal life , parents who let their siblings take over leadership positions make succssful families, government heads who build second line of leaders to take their cause create thriving economies and religions who gave the mantle to their followers thrived.

Business works exactly the same way

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