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Be open and honest - SmartBlog on Leadership 9.26.2014

“To be persuasive, we must be believable; to be believable, we must be credible; to be credible, we must be truthful.” ~ Edward R. Murrow

One of the hardest talks that I had to give took place right before the beginning of my third year as head of school. It was at the back-to-school full faculty meeting and I needed to clear the air about an issue that was on many people’s minds.

The issue was me. Not that I necessarily did anything so terrible that required addressing. But I knew that our insular, largely veteran faculty was still struggling with the transition from their previous boss and the relatively new style of leadership that I represented. My message was simple and direct. I validated the feelings of those who continued to pine for a bygone era and let them know that I was prepared to do whatever I could to ensure the smoothest pathway forward.

After the talk, a veteran teacher approached me. He thanked me for my words and told me that I had said what needed to be said to acknowledge and validate. It was now time to move on to what we needed to achieve. And we achieved quite a bit that year, perhaps more than my previous two years combined.

The ability to take an honest look at a situation and take the necessary steps to rectify it — even if it means admitting error and/or acknowledging weakness – is crucial for leader effectiveness. Frequently, however, we see just the opposite occur. In many instances, our first response is to deny problems or mistakes or conjure up excuses to justify their occurrence. Nobody wants to appear as foolish or ill-informed. This is particularly true of leaders, who tend to feel that they must always act justifiably or lose credibility.

Fans of the 1970s sitcom “Happy Days” fondly remember the heroics and antics of Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli. Fonzie was the quintessential cool guy, and always seemed to show up at the right time to save Richie and friends from trouble. But even the great Fonzie made mistakes, and when he did, he demonstrated a deep inability to admit his errors. The first two words, “I was,” came out without issue. When he reached the key descriptor, “wrong,” his face became contorted and pained. Try as he might (and he did try), the Fonz simply could not proclaim error. “I was wrrr-rrr-rrr” was as far as it went. Through comic relief, Fonzie exemplified a human weakness that is oftentimes expressed most deeply by those in positions of leadership and perceived strength.

Error is as central to the human condition as any other quality. We all make mistakes, and will do so every day of our lives. We must be willing to accept them, and have the self-confidence and integrity to admit it when we do. Our ability and willingness to do this, perhaps more than anything else, will allow us to build and maintain the trust of those we lead.

Business leaders routinely make decisions based upon imperfect information and judgment. They may get blindsided by a competitor’s response or underestimate the challenges in developing and selling products. Wholeheartedly accepting our errors, rather than avoiding responsibility or offering up excuses, limits potential damage and sets us on the right course.

What prevents leaders from apologizing freely, from owning up to mistakes and taking full responsibility for them? One contributor, no doubt, is the cultural axiom that leaders, particularly aspiring ones, should hide weaknesses and errors. However, we need to realize that it is not only healthy for leaders to admit their wrongdoings, but such practice can be a powerful tool for them, increasing their legitimacy among their co-workers. People need courageous leaders in order to feel there is someone to make the tough calls and to take responsibility for them; they need to know that the buck truly does stop with the leader. With a dauntless leader, people feel protected, knowing that the person in charge really has their back and will take ownership when things go awry.

Moreover, when practiced regularly, such admissions can help to build a culture that increases solidarity and openness to change, positive features of organizational life. And courage begets courage: followers are more likely to make their own tough decisions and to take responsibility for them when their supervisors model that same behavior. Have their backs and they will more likely have yours.

In terms of the actual apology, follow these rules in order to maximize its effect.

  • Apologize sincerely. Saying “I am sorry” must communicate genuine regret for your behavior and a wish that you had acted differently.

  • Take complete ownership. Avoid shifting the blame (“I apologize that you misunderstood me,” “I am sorry that you felt that way,” etc.). Doing so greatly diminishes the apologizer’s effectiveness. Stating that the other person was partly responsible for what occurred or for his hurt feelings places the listener on the defensive and causes them to consider you to be disingenuous and perhaps even accusatory. And that is no way to apologize.

  • Avoid excuses. State your error directly, without justification. To the listener’s ear, excuses not only feel like an attempt to validate the wrongdoing, they may even sound like an attack, as if the plaintiff was inconsiderate to hold him accountable in the first place.

  • State how you intend to fix things. Articulating your intent to correct matters, including an action plan of intended steps, will do wonders to convince the listener of your sincerity. It should be simple, realistic and detailed.

  • And then follow through. Few things damage morale more than when a leader sets expectations for personal or organizational change and then does not follow through. In many ways, it is worse than not having apologized in the first place. When leaders do not act as promised, employees question not only their courage and will, but also their trustworthiness.

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