Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mistakes Were Made!

Mistakes were made...Every time I hear that phrase I cringe...How about you?

Mistakes were vague, so passive, so un-leader like. Yet, people keep using it. It screams out from the headlines and assaults our ears from the TV.

Mistakes were made... At first it looks like the leader is taking responsibility for the mistakes. But study the grammar more closely and another picture emerges.

Mistakes were made...What does it really mean? 'Mistakes' is the subject of this sentence in the passive voice. But the object of the sentence -- by whom -- is not stated. By whom? We don't know.

Mistakes were made...What the leader is really saying is, "OK, folks, we tried to hide the mistakes but now you've got the evidence. So we have to say something that sounds like we're on top of it and sounds like we're taking responsibility. It also buys us time to decide whom to sacrifice...whom to throw over the back of the troika to the wolves -- the press, the public, the employees. Maybe while they're gnawing on those bones, we can think of something else to divert their attention."

Mistakes were made indeed...The first mistake is that we made a bad decision. But then we compound it by ignoring it, covering it up, blaming someone else or taking actions that are incorrect. There is only one correct answer.

"I made a mistake. I take responsibility.

Here's what I'm doing to fix it.

Here is what I've learned.

Here's how I will apply that in the future.

I will take the consequences."

I've interviewed a wide variety of leaders for my new book on strategic leadership. I chose them because they had a track record for translating vision into reality and transforming their organizations. I asked each one what their worst business decision was and what they did about it. They all had similar reports. These are typical:
"There was a story in the newspapers about a major mistake we made. You can make excuses for it or you can be transparent about what happened. I walked the media through it and they accurately described it to the public. I hope other companies who read the story will learn from it. The key is to take an adverse incident like that and turn it into something that we can learn from so it doesn't happen again."

"Mistakes? I've made some doozies! The ones I've always regretted were the ones where I reacted and said something I didn't mean. I was confronted with an email I had sent. I learned a lot from by boss that day about what a great executive does. He told me to go immediately to everyone on the list and apologize. It was hard but I did it. I learned a lot from that."

How do you create that environment of responsibility for the entire company? Listen to another CEO:

"I want everyone to see our corporate values walking down the hall every day. Let's combine the mind and the heart and have a mission and a culture. They've heard so much about making money, budget and business plans. When we switched to emphasizing the mission, values and culture, the metrics followed and we went from single to double digit returns."

Nary a one of the CEOs I interviewed said 'mistakes were made' or any of its variants. Their message was clear. Real leadership, strategic leadership, is about taking responsibility every day for the decisions you make and living your values in your actions.

I heard a story on the news that brought it all home in a different context. A high school student's parents were suing a teacher and the school system. The student, who had a good record, made a decision to turn in a class project late. The teacher had made it plain that late projects would not be accepted so the student earned an 'F.' The student made the decision not to turn the project. Now the parents are suing for the 'trauma' their offspring 'suffered.'

Mistakes were made! What lesson is this young person learning? What lessons are we teaching our employees and colleagues...ourselves?

I have some advice: Let's ban that despicable phrase, 'Mistakes were made,' from the language. Let's take full responsibility for our bad decisions, learn from them AND take the consequences. Let's demonstrate our values 'walking down the hall.'

-- Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, Ph.D., President

Advantage Leadership, Inc.

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