Real Leaders Own Their Mistakes
We're searching for top company cultures to be featured on our annual list. Think your company has what it takes? Apply Now »
Whether you’re a CEO, a manager, or a business owner, you’re the boss, and that means you’ve got a lot of responsibility riding on your shoulders. When you’re in position of authority, your customers, investors, and employees put a great deal of faith in your ability to make the right call. So you have to step up to the plate and deliver.
But sometimes, things go terribly wrong. And while it might be tempting to fall back on some lame excuse or blame someone else, that’s a big red flag that you’re not ready for prime time. If you want to make the big bucks, you’ve got to put on your big-boy pants and hold yourself accountable. Whining and pointing fingers won’t cut it.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the need for business leaders to own their mistakes, far too many bosses act as if they never got the memo.
For example, I’ve heard former Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman (she’s currently CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Chairman of HP Inc.) make plenty of thinly veiled excuses for four long years of write-downs, layoffs, and revenue declines before finally giving in to shareholder pressure and splitting the company in two.
Whitman blamed former CEO Leo Apotheker and his botched acquisition of Autonomy. Never mind that, as a board director, she approved every decision he made. She also blamed his predecessor, Mark Hurd (now co-CEO of Oracle) for his acquisition of EDS and R&D cuts.
Related: Learn to Write, for God's Sake
And when Apotheker was running the show, I remember a couple of earnings calls where he lowered the company's revenue targets after having just raised them. Instead of holding himself accountable for lousy forecasts, he blamed everyone and everything from Hurd and the breakout success of Apple’s iPad to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
In contrast, Hurd never pointed a finger at his predecessor, Carly Fiorina. He simply took the reins, did what had to be done, turned the company around, and led HP to market share gains across all core businesses and five straight years of profit and revenue growth, even though half his tenure coincided with the Great Recession.
This lack of accountability epidemic is even worse in Washington. Whenever a politician opens his mouth you can expect blame to spew out. Speaking at a fundraiser in Atlanta a couple of years into his first term as President, Barack Obama blamed the sub-prime mortgage crisis and ensuing recession squarely on the Bush Administration:
“We got here after 10 years of an economic agenda in Washington that was pretty straightforward. You cut taxes for millionaires, you cut rules for special interests, and you cut working folks loose to fend for themselves. That was the philosophy of the last administration and their friends in Congress.”
That wasn’t the first time and it certainly wouldn’t be the last that Obama blamed America’s economic woes and chaos in the Middle East on his predecessor, Republicans in Congress, anyone but himself. Frankly, it’s obscene for a sitting president – the most powerful man in the world – to shirk his responsibility and play a childish blame game.
Bush certainly had his issues, but blaming others for his failures was not one of them.
Not only can Obama, Apotheker, and Whitman learn about leadership accountability from Bush and Hurd, they can also learn about owning their mistakes from the National Football League.
Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was recently taken to task for his decision to kick an extra point and send the Arizona Cardinals game into overtime (a fifty-fifty bet), instead of going for a two-point conversion, which the team had done successfully two thirds of the time this season. But like a true leader, McCarthy owned the decision and held only himself accountable.
A couple of weeks before, New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin made the rare decision to resign after three losing seasons, instead of putting the team’s management, players, and fans through the drama over whether he’d be fired or not. He left with integrity … and his head held high.
And sophomore wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. posted an unconditional apology for his unsportsmanlike behavior against cornerback Josh Norman during a Carolina Panthers game. He could have blamed it on taunting by Norman and some pregame antics, but instead, he held only himself accountable.
This is simple, folks. Everyone makes mistakes, but real leaders own them. Real leaders hold themselves, and only themselves, accountable. The buck really does stop with them. That’s the way it should be. That’s the only way to lead.
Be sure to check out Steve’s new book, Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur. Learn more at stevetobak.com/book/real-leaders-dont-follow/.