Reasons or Excuses – Do Yours Pass the SMELL Test?

by  Page Cole  |  Self Leadership

We’re all going to fail or let someone down sooner or later.  The cause of our failure may be legitimate, or it may not.  As much as leaders want results, they despise excuses even more.  A trust relationship can be destroyed in an instant, and the weapon of its demise is an excuse.

I remember vividly my experience with Big George, the owner of the Box Car BBQ.  Big George sang in a Gospel quartet, had a laugh that could be heard across the county, and he always had the sweet, ever faint scent of BBQ and smoked meat around him.  I was the Youth & Recreation Pastor at the church he attended, and it was my responsibility to lead the planning and execution of the Church Wide picnic.  We invited people to bring a vegetable and a dessert, and the church took care of the main course- BBQ Brisket from the Box Car BBQ.

My responsibility was simple.  Give a headcount to Big George by the Wednesday before the big Sunday event.  That would give him enough time to buy, smoke and cut up the meat without interrupting his regular business.  Easy enough to do.  It hit me at lunch on Friday, two days past my deadline, that I had forgotten to give the count to Big George.  I panicked as I thought about 400 hungry Baptists standing in line expecting BBQ, with me at the head of the serving line passing out hot dog wieners instead.  It was not a pretty picture.  So I mustered my courage and drove to the Box Car BBQ.  George had just climbed into his truck to leave when I pulled up.  I caught his eye, so he put his truck in park and rolled his window down slowly as I approached his truck.

The moment of truth had arrived.  Would I blame it the hospital visits I had made that week, or on the funeral I had attended?  Maybe ask him if he was supposed to have contacted me?  Distract or blame… hmmm.  But I couldn’t do it.  As he sat in his truck, staring straight ahead with a cloudy countenance, I took a deep breath and said, “George, I owe you an apology.  I was supposed to have called you on Wednesday, and I simply forgot.  There’s no excuse. I’m sorry I let you down, and I’ll understand if it’s too late now.”  Then the most amazing thing happened.  He turned to look me straight in the eye, and he paused for what seemed like an eternity.  Then nodding his head in assent, he smiled and said, “That’s OK, preacher boy.  I’ve got you covered… and thank you.”

In that moment the consequences of what might have been hit me.  Had I distracted, blamed, whined or made excuses, I’d have not only been handing out hot dogs instead of brisket, but I’d have lost the respect of a good man.  Even today the smell of a good BBQ joint reminds me of the test I passed that day.  The question I have for you is this:  When you have messed up, how do you tell if you’re communicating an honest reason for failure, or a coward’s excuse?   It has to pass the SMELL test.

S- Sincere.  When you fail, those you have let down primarily want to know that you’re as upset as they are, if not more.  They want any communication from you to be sincere and authentic.  If they sense a cover up or a phony attitude behind your explanation, then you just flunked the SMELL test.

M- Misleading. Distraction and deception are two sides of the same bad penny.  If you’re trying to play the blame game and pass the buck to someone else, or convolute the situation in such a way that blame seems to lie anywhere but where it genuinely belongs, it’s just wrong.  You’ve flunked the SMELL test again.

E- Egotistical.  Another way to describe this is a “martyr syndrome.”  As a way to avoid responsibility for our shortcomings, we go to great extremes to persuade others that we too are a victim.  Victim’s of our schedule, our budget, our co-workers or of circumstance, it doesn’t matter.  But explanations that paint us as the one who has truly suffered will totally miss the mark with your audience, and absolutely will not pass the SMELL test.

L- Lie.  Dishonesty seems to be a comfortable option for more people than we’d like to believe.  Their motto is, “Why tell the truth when a good lie will do?”  Remember, honesty means what it means- we tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  Lies of omission are just as deceptive as lies of commission, and both stink.

L- Lumps. If you want your explanation or reasons for your failure to be heard, accepted and respected, then you must be willing to take your punishment or accept the consequences of your failures.  This needs to spoken out loud rather than assumed.  My grandmother used to say, “Crow always tasted better when you feed it to yourself.”  A direct and voiced acceptance of our deserved consequences not only brings increased respect from others, but helps us move ahead with a greater amount of self-respect.  If you’re not willing to face the music, then your stinky excuses won’t pass the SMELL test either.

So the day will come when you’re looking at a train wreck of your failure. How will you react?  Will you stand tall, take responsibility and honestly confront the issues?  I hope so, because anything else just smells up the room.

By the way, we had a great picnic, and the BBQ was amazing.

What else is important when confronting others about your failures?

“Excuses” by Alanis Morissette

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About The Author

Articles By page-cole
I’m a dealer in hope… In my career, for seniors who want to stay safely in their own homes… in my family, that our best days are still yet to come… and in my sphere of influence, that we all have the ability to change our world, first and foremost by changing ourselves for the better!  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Mary C Schaefer  |  20 Feb 2014  |  Reply

Hi Page. What a great use of humor! I think you pretty much covered all the bases when it comes to admitting one’s failures. The words that came to me as I read your post are humility and surrender.

Learning this lesson myself more than once, I distinctly remember the word, “confess”, come to me when I knew I need to address an issue with a colleague. Since then I’ve developed these guidelines as my goal when it comes to address my failings: Be open, timely and direct.

I think “open” certainly connects with your points of not misleading or lying. For me being timely is important in that #1, the more I procrastinate the “lumps” can become more painful and #2, the longer I take the more likely I’m (or the other person is) making up stories that make the situation worse.

Regarding my goal of being direct – now certainly there are going to be times where I consult trusted advisors on dealing with my issue, but ultimately I commit to addressing the issue directly with the person impacted or involved.

Thanks so much for brining this up, and challenging us all to use the SMELL test :)

Paul LaRue  |  20 Feb 2014  |  Reply

Page, this was a well-thought post that really hits the mark. I’m sure many leaders have failed, and passed, the SMELL test during our careers – I for one sure have. Yet as we learn we realize those ethics you have put into mind.

I appreciate your humility in putting forth this lesson from your life. It reinforces us to learn and teach from those times we’ve dropped the ball and took ownership of our character and choices.

Bill Benoist  |  20 Feb 2014  |  Reply

What a powerful post.

Trust has never something an individual needed to earn from me, only something they could lose; and making excuses, playing victim, or worse – lying, has always been the fastest way to lose that trust.

Maybe because Responsibility is my number one StrengthsFinder theme, but once someone has lost their creditability or trust with me, it’s seldom repaired. For a long time, I find I carry a hint of doubt that was never there before.

Vatsala Shukla  |  21 Feb 2014  |  Reply

Hi Page. Your post brought back memories of my childhood years and the golden rule that my parents had for me and my sister. If we had done something wrong or goofed up, then admit it and not to cover it up if we were caught, the consequences were no parties, cut in pocket money and a good lecture!

On the other hand, if we owned up, there was always a warmhearted parent willing to listen to us as we explained where we were coming from and guidance to avoid future goof-ups.

Taking ownership of our faults opens avenues for guidance and mentoring to get it right the next time round and the absence of the burden of carrying guilt on our shoulders. Thanks for sharing, Page.

Gregory K Hernandez  |  05 Mar 2014  |  Reply

“I am wrong, you are right, I am sorry” still seems to get stuck in my throat. A valuable lesson for all of us. Thank you for sharing.

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