(This post was first published on the blog on January 25, 2016.)
One of the classic ways leaders lose credibility and create big problems is by trying to cover up their errors. Whether it is a failure of competence (not a huge deal if it’s rare) or a failure of character (a much bigger deal, even if rare), leaders’ errors are usually revealed at some point. Trying to cover them up often leads to a much greater loss of credibility than just admitting to them.
Always seeming to be on top of everything may raise your perceived competency in the moment, but when a leaders never admit to mistakes it tends to lower their trustability over the long haul. And as we learned in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, trust is huge in this fast-paced, globally-connected economy.
Admitting your mistakes can be so powerful in building trust that one could almost be inclined to want to make an error just so she could respond to it with integrity and thus make her reputation even better. (Of course this would lack integrity in itself and, therefore, be wrong.) However, looking for opportunities to exhibit real integrity when painful mistakes have been made is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the opportunistic thing to do. Reputations are built in times of anxiety.
Remember the Rudyard Kipling quote from our Living Systems session? “If you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs, and blaming you for it, then the world is yours and all that is in it.”
I recently got to see this quote lived out firsthand. Significant mistakes have been made over the past couple of years, which has led to Flint’s water being poisoned with high levels of lead. Governor Snyder has been blamed for this by everyone from Cher to Michael Moore to Jesse Jackson—and many more. He has been attacked by people inside and outside of Michigan that, in my opinion, don’t know the facts nor care to do the very difficult work to find the pertinent facts.
Are they reacting out of anxiety as Living Systems theory would predict? I suspect so. Might they also be reacting out of political motives? Certainly so.
I had the painful privilege of being present for the governor’s State of the State speech this past Tuesday. This deeply caring and not-very-gifted public speaker (both are my opinions after meeting personally him several times) could have used a little help with his delivery, but in my view, he lived out the Rudyard Kipling quote right before my eyes.
While outside the Capitol protestors were screaming at the top of their lungs and blowing horns , the governor quietly and passionately spoke above the noise. But for a moment at the end of the speech when he seemed to be holding back tears, he kept his head while many around him were losing theirs, and blaming him for it. For me, it was a powerful example of the lessons we are teaching in LEAD 365.
Only time will tell if this self-proclaimed nerd has pulled the wool over my eyes or if he proves to be a leader worth following—even though so many are calling for him to resign and some are making threats against his well-being. Either way, it’s a great chance to see someone I believe is a great leader engage a very anxious living system. I hope and even pray that he keeps his head as others continue to lose theirs, and blame him for it. If he does, I believe his reputation will rise well above his previous high mark.
If he proves to be a leader worth following, then the 294 pages of emails he released will be everything that is pertinent to the tragic situation in Flint, and people will be held accountable for their lack of competence and/or integrity. There have already been a few state and federal leaders fired for their part in this disaster. If he’s not a leader worth following, like so many other leaders in this world, then that fact will surface. If he is a leader worth following, then I suspect he will continue to go on quietly caring for the people of Michigan and attempt to form public policy that will best serve the people of this state.
So, here is my bottom line for writing about this situation: Whether or not you agree with my points about the governor, as a great leader in West Michigan, make sure you are a leader worth following! Be quick to fess up to your errors and you will not only survive them, you will likely thrive from them.
If you would like to learn more about the crisis in Flint, check out this article by David Mastio, the deputy editorial page editor of USA TODAY, and former environmental reporter for The Detroit News.
Lead well this week!
Image by Sudhamshu. Used under CC by 2.0 license.