Real Leaders Don't Make Excuses

There are so many ways we get in our own way. You might know a team member who regularly pipes up with, “We tried that 5 years ago and it didn’t work.” Maybe you have your own go-to excuse, like, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

Of course, it never seems like an excuse at the time. One of my favorites is, “That’s above my pay grade.” To me it’s only another version of “It’s not my job.”

Don’t get caught up in a tragedy of errors

Excuses can have dire consequences. One of the best examples I can think of happened to a colleague while she was on a project team many years ago. For our story today, I’ll call her Claire.

Claire was having a hard time getting what she needed to get her job done. She was on a team implementing a new software program. Her contact with the software company was not cooperative. You could even say he was actively uncooperative.

She went to her project manager. He reflected how odd it was that not only Claire but also three of her teammates voiced the same experience. Peculiar, that. Yet he didn’t observe the behavior they described.

She asked that he get a new rep. He said if he wasn’t seeing a problem he couldn’t ruin the rep's career by raising this up with his employer.

Apparently the project manager was okay with allowing Claire and her teammates to languish in a miserable situation, and make no progress on the project for that matter. His advice was to cut the rep some slack.

Claire talked to her boss about this, many times. He suggested she would get good practice at managing challenging situations. Claire went to her boss’s boss, several times. He was a little more empathetic. He told her to let him know when she was at her breaking point. Then he would act. Why would you want to wait until the person was at a breaking point?

In the meantime Claire stayed up nights brainstorming and reading books on what she could do to improve the situation. She lost sleep.

To make a long story short, the situation inadvertently became quite public. HR got involved. The persons who didn’t act looked pretty bad. Claire was so wrung out that she quit.

Real leaders don’t say, “It’s not my job”

I shudder to think about running a root cause failure analysis on this situation. At every turn "leaders" failed Claire with some version of “It’s not my job.” What can we learn?

As I consider this incident, and many others that wound up in my office as an HR manager, I offer these points to check yourself.

  • Has the person done everything within their power to improve the situation? Do they have the skills? If not, are you coaching them on that? What would “cut him some slack” look like?
  • Does the person bringing the issue to you have the authority to change the situation? Do you? Who does? Who should escalate it?
  • Are you listening deeply and with discernment? Are you dialing in how long this has been going on? How is this affecting the person’s health? What is the state of this person’s productivity?
  • Does this person typically have problems like this? An employee may have a reputation for exaggeration or creating drama. That doesn’t mean the situation isn’t real this time. It deserves some level of investigation.
  • What is your part? Are you avoiding conflict? Are you pushing it back to the employee because it’s sticky? Be honest with yourself.

It IS your job — A real leader rises to the occasion

A real leader gets the full picture of the situation. A real leader understands the well-being of employees has a direct effect on the success of the work. A real leader takes the challenge even when the situation is ugly. A real leader doesn't have the luxury of making excuses.