Made a leadership blunder? It’s OK to fall on your sword

| 25 May 2023

Back in the day, leaders who felt they’d mucked up (in Roman times usually about something pretty serious like losing an important battle of honour) were known to take pretty drastic action involving sharp weapons. The modern-day equivalent is a leader resigning from their position as a result of failure or wrongdoing or at least standing up to take public accountability for the situation.

I’m not about to get embroiled in the news of the week surrounding Suella Braverman’s speeding infringement, nor imply by my choice of title that drastic action was required in response. However, I had the benefit of a long car journey to see a client on Monday and a chance to catch up with one of my guilty pleasures – Talkback radio – complete with obligatory call-ins from the great British public. The Ms Braverman story headlined, which has got me thinking about leadership take-aways from this situation and specifically about why leaders should ‘own’ their mistakes.

Accountability breeds trust. When leaders acknowledge their mistakes and take responsibility for them, it sends a powerful message to their team and stakeholders. It demonstrates integrity and, by accepting the consequences, leaders show that they are not above the rules and are committed to maintaining high standards.

Leaders serve as role models for their team members. People watch us, they talk about us, they take cues as to what is OK and what is not, they take our words – even if ‘off the cuff’ – at face value, they quote them back at us, often a long time later. When leaders take ownership of their mistakes, it encourages others to do the same. It creates a culture where everyone feels comfortable admitting their errors, seeking improvement, and learning from their experiences. By falling on their sword, leaders are more likely to inspire their team to embrace personal growth and strive for excellence.

Leaders are entrusted with the responsibility of safeguarding the reputation of their organisation, or, in the case of parliamentary codes of conduct, with the government’s. By taking swift action and owning up when they make a mistake, leaders mitigate the damage caused by their actions, showing that they prioritise the greater good and are willing to put the interests of the ‘institution’ above their personal ego. This level of humility and commitment to rectify mistakes helps preserve the organisation’s credibility and trustworthiness.

I am no fan of using crises as a publicity stunt. But there are sometimes messages with positive intent that can be expressed when things go wrong. I think it’s a shame that a high profile politician missed an opportunity to reinforce a public health warning alongside her apology – the message that speeding is a serious offense which contributes to a substantial number of accidents, injuries and deaths and has the potential to cause severe harm to individuals and communities.

On that note, my other take away from the debate was that many people who dialled in, prefaced their opinions with something like ‘speeding is normal, we all do it’. Yes, speeding is a behaviour that many people engage in on a regular basis. But why has it become so normalized that some individuals don’t perceive it as a significant offence? Same goes for the workplace – when a bad behaviour becomes commonplace and isn’t sanctioned, or visibly so, we normalise it and people tend to underestimate its potential risks and consequences.

When it comes to consequences of speeding (or in a workplace, any other regularly committed misdemeanours like leaking a confidential discussion, stealing from the stationary cupboard, engaging in sexist banter or a myriad of others), in many cases the crime does not result in immediate negative outcomes. People may have driven above the speed limit numerous times without experiencing any adverse effects, or gotten away with ‘banter’ that is actually a microaggression, which can create a false sense of security and downplay the seriousness of the offense. This lack of immediate consequence can contribute to the perception that something is a relatively minor transgression.

Lack of awareness or education plays a part. Just as some individuals may not fully understand the potential risks associated with speeding or have lived experience of its harmful outcomes, in the workplace, education and training campaigns are needed to raise awareness of the behavioural expectations the workplace sets for its staff, including its most senior leaders.

And finally, it only perpetuates a culture of ‘getting away with it’ when the superiors of an erring leader decide that the matter does not need to be investigated or sanctioned, especially when this goes against the grain of popular workplace opinion.

The great news is that it’s eminently possible to both set and to maintain workplace behavioural standards if we set our minds to it – even in senior ranks and even across massive organisations. If you’d like to find out more about how our team helps companies to do this, please do get in touch.

Jody Goldsworthy is a Partner within the leadership consulting team at NSCG.

Learn more about Jody here.

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