Great leaders aren’t remembered for what they do when everything’s fine. They shine when times are tough by embracing adversity and shouldering the blame.
A true leader—somebody who is in charge of the culture and the organization—has to be very quick to apologize and very slow to blame. The reality is that bad things happen, sometimes things that are beyond your control. Sometimes they result from bad decisions made by people who work for you.
But the leader is ultimately responsible… for everything—for the environment of the team and for building a culture that allows people to realize that you’re not perfect, that you make mistakes every day. If you create an environment of fear and reprehension, people will cover up mistakes because they’re scared of you. Instead you want to create an environment in which people know you’re not perfect so you don’t expect them to be. Yet you must have high standards of accountability and responsibility so when something bad happens, they own up to it.
Having said that, if a mistake happens under my watch, it is my fault. I don’t care how brilliant my plan was—if it didn’t work, it didn’t work. If you are in charge, you own it. If you’re president of the United States and things aren’t going well, it’s your fault. If you are CEO of a company and things aren’t going well, it’s your fault. If you’re the head coach and your team is losing, it’s your fault.
Accepting blame rather than assigning it helps you move past the problem and build a stronger culture. You aren’t responsible for protecting your ego; you are responsible for growing the organization. And blame does not move the organization forward.
As a leader, you have to be the bigger person, and it’s not good enough to say you’re sorry—you have to do something about it.
Here’s an example: In the ’90s, my company had taken big steps to improve the business structurally without growing the sales force enough. So I oversteered in that direction in the early 2000s, and we grew like crazy. But many veteran members of the sales force started thinking I cared only about the new people and not the old-timers. A leader has to learn that people can read things into his or her actions that were never intended, which is what happened then. During a meeting, I could tell a lot of the longtime sales force members were unhappy. I made a speech apologizing and accepting the blame for this perception. I explained how I felt and how much I loved them. I explained what I had to do to grow the business and told them I was sorry if I had made them feel unimportant.
I didn’t think I’d done anything to make them feel that way, but if people had that impression, then I was at fault.
When things don’t go well, you have to look in the mirror and blame yourself. You have to be the first to apologize. As a leader, you have to be the bigger person, and it’s not good enough to say you’re sorry—you have to do something about it.
After all, a leader is ultimately responsible for making things better—that’s his or her No. 1 job. However things are today, tomorrow they need to be better. In the process of moving past problems constructively, it’s always good to remember that your job isn’t to be right—it’s not about your ego or proving a point—it’s always about making things better.