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  • Imagine if leaders owned their mistakes

Imagine if leaders owned their mistakes

12 September 2021

Gerard Rahman, Partner |

Sunlight poured into the room from the left. As he entered, he said to himself, first impressions count. As the new CEO, it was time to meet his middle management. After a firm handshake, he asked them to sit. He wanted to be transparent. He wanted to build trust. As he spoke, his hands moved gently, showing open palms. He shared that there was less income because of the pandemic. And they will need to make some of their teams redundant. He closed his eyes and breathed slowly as he left the room. Shortly after, a middle manager shared the news with a team. He told them that they face redundancy. The news spread quickly, as you could imagine, and that cold emptiness enveloped the new CEO as he grasped the implications. He panicked and blamed the middle manager for spreading false news. The manager wrote back to the CEO, copying in all the middle managers that the news came from the CEO. There was no reply to that email. Within two months, the CEO made the team redundant. And any remnant of trust disappeared with the wind…

When it comes to a leader owning their mistakes, each of us has a story to tell. Sadly, most of our stories will be how our leader stonewalls any discussion. Or justify something, which is plainly wrong. As a leader myself, I’ll put my hand up as being guilty of this. Each leader is different. We are all conditioned by unique experiences. In some cultures, admitting being responsible for a mistake is a weakness. But the question is not why many leaders do not own their mistakes. This is about what if they did.

Does it even matter whether a leader owns their mistake? The truth is that we all know it was his or her mistake. Out of respect, we may not point it out – indeed there is merit in being graceful. Or in our hearts we may know that it will not make a difference. Up until recently, not owning one’s mistake as a leader, was not an unreasonable strategy. Perhaps a one-on-one open discussion with the Board Chairperson would be the limit – but even there, the role of the Chair is to mentor, not berate. But this question of leaders owning their mistakes is relevant because the perfect storm is here. Let us look at the three parts of this perfect storm in managing culture. Many of us are working remotely. The pandemic makes us uncertain. Most of our workforce are Gen Y and Z, who (thankfully) are less prone to selfless duty than the generations before them.

Above all, trust is the key to retain talent and culture. Whether or not, there is a storm outside. You and I know we make mistakes. So, let us press the rewind button. Not to avoid a mistake, because if we don’t make mistakes, what is there to learn from? No, let us look at an alternate approach to working through the mistake.

Imagine, once the news had spread, the new CEO had approached the manager to say, “I should have asked you all to treat this in confidence, because it was not a done deal. Indeed, I should have asked for your help to see what options we had to balance the needs of our people and the financial challenge we face. Or, at least, how to deal with it if redundancy was inevitable. This isn’t your fault – I know you would have acted in the best interests of our people; it is my mistake. Let’s catch up with middle management to let them know. I feel that I need to come clean with the team as quickly as possible as this ambiguity would be hurting them. In the meantime, I’ll update the Board about my error”.

Imagine. He meets middle management and says: “I recognise my error in discussing early thoughts as if they were final. Even though those thoughts may become our only viable option. I must learn from that, but right now we have people without comfort, and many of those have dependent families. I feel that I should meet with them all together – apologise for the way I handled this. Do whatever we can to reduce the pain. This is my responsibility, but I would be grateful if any of you would stand with me to give comfort to the team…” As sunlight pours into the room, it floods with trust. There is our alternative.



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