True leaders emerge during times of trouble, turmoil and strife – riding the strength of their convictions to success – then thrive as conditions improve. While there should be very little difference in your leadership style when facing unexpected hurdles (whether at work or at home), far too many “competent” individuals excuse their actions (or inactivity) by blaming them on or deferring them to others. They bend to fit into their surroundings rather than standing firmly against life’s storms. Seeking short term-gain (popularity, acceptance, being “liked”) often damages long-term credibility (predictability, consistency, being “fair.”). Some examples of BOTH an appropriate action AND a “fall back” reaction would include the following:
A company is experiencing tough economic times and has asked Management to trim expenses. Two approaches to this situation might be:
- Inform employees that cutbacks and layoffs might be necessary due to reduced sales and increased inventory. Task departments with the responsibility to find ways expenses might be cut with a minimal impact on staff by identifying productive work that could be done so that all staff can continue working while contributing to the bottom line.
- Tell staff to “look busy” because “top management” is out to cut employees and you do not want any of “your people” to be impacted. In showing compassion to employees by “building a bridge with staff based on a mutual fear of top management,” this type of manager may avoid the “blame bullet” but will never earn recognition as a leader. Deferring responsibility to someone else moves an individual from being an integral part of the solution to being an expendable part of the problem.
A Leader takes ownership of his or her actions. By taking ownership of a situation rather than blaming another for an unfortunate circumstance, a good manager accepts and faces reality. He or she affirms that things are tough (most employees probably already known this and are waiting for affirmation). After stating facts, employees are asked to be involved in the development of a solution (getting “buy-in” will make even a mediocre idea achievable). Painting a realistic picture of what could happen establishes ownership of the situation and adds urgency to resolving the problem. Blaming someone else in order to remain friends or be popular is not a long-term solution. A Leader, by the very nature of his or her work, leads (if not, he or she should either follow or get out of the way!). Though accepting responsibility for decisions (even when they negatively affect the lives of others) is not always the easiest thing to do, it is always more acceptable than deferring the decision to another (“management says I have…”). Your employees may not see you as their “friend” when you personalize your supervisory responsibilities but you will earn their respect when you are fair, consistent and predictable.
An individual has made a “bad decision” that could seriously hurt another’s feelings and tarnish his/her reputation. No lasting damage was done nor was any long-term relationship destroyed but issues of trust and credibility may be involved. There are always more than one way to address and resolve our personal failings but which of these three approaches might most match your first response (and is that the same as the “best” alternative)?
- Ignore the situation and hope it goes away. The individual whom may be harmed has not heard anything of your actions and you do not believe he or she ever will. Adhering to the tenant “if it is not broke, do not try to fix it,” you walk around the elephant in the room and move on as if nothing ever happened.
- Come forward and tell part of the tale – enough to scratch the surface so if something “leaks” the person will be prepared and aware even if the full extent of the discretion has not been revealed but not enough to “spill the beans” or establish responsibility. If additional details come out you can always discount the account or blame someone else for putting you up to it. It is easier, after all, to ask forgiveness than to seek permission.
- Fall on the sword, so to speak, by telling all and resolving to change. Do not blame another – accept responsibility for your actions and deal with their repercussions. Do not needlessly or intentionally hurt another in the recounting of your tale but make sure that you have learned from your mistake so that it does not become a recurring habit.
Gaining respect and credibility is far better than trying to be a friend to those you manage. Learning how to ask the right questions when investigating a situation – then listening to hear the truthful answer – will help you see “the forest from the trees.” Fools rush in – leaders learn to step back so they can ask why something was done rather than constantly pushing forward to address only what happened. A Leader takes his or her personal obligations more seriously than their work expectations. Trust cannot be exhibited for a day unless it is consistently demonstrated throughout an individual’s life. While taking the easy road (ignoring a situation or partially revealing a truth) may be less painful and create fewer short-term disruptions, individuals preferring to dodge responsibility for their choices and actions will never be seen as credible leaders when they are provided the opportunity to lead. Great leaders thoughtfully and carefully consider all their decisions BEFORE they are made, making sure they are willing and able to accept the results of their actions so they can move forward with confidence to accept the rewards (or deal with the repercussions) of their actions.
We are bound to fall victim to our human vulnerabilities as we strive to become better leaders UNLESS we intentionally take the road less traveled rather than the easy path as it often produces a more ethical direction. Remain true to your values – transferring the skills and aptitudes you demonstrate on a personal level to the workplace – as you say what you believe and do what you know to be right. Praise often and loudly – criticize only when necessary (then only constructively) and in private. Be the leader you were destined to become by equipping yourself with the tools necessary to accomplish the task – seeking and participating in training designed to maximize your ability to motivate others.