Real Leaders Don't Make Excuses
February 8, 2017
Mary C. Schaefer
TopicsCharacter, Character-based Leadership, Leadership, Trust, Values
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.
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However uncomfortable the reality may be, sometimes we just HAVE to be the squeaky wheel that won’t go away. The comment became a buzz phrase yesterday, but we have to persist!
Indeed, Jane. Fortunately Claire, in my story, chose to be the leader in her own life, and persist in proceeding in what was right for her. Persistence – an underrated attribute. Thanks for bringing it up! And thanks for commenting, always.
Would you say that you can be a leader if you keep making excuses? Or is accountability a prerequisite for leadership?
Personally I believe that you have to lead by (a good) example, and that if you as a leader make excuses, your employees will follow your lead and do the same thing. What do you think?
I am considering your questions carefully, Marcus.
Easy question first. Employees often follow a leader’s example, good and bad.
Those who look to leaders to set the tone must have a strong character to proceed and do the right thing if the leader is not setting a good example. If you consider the (true) story in the post, Claire proceeded with what she needed to do despite all of the bad examples set by leaders in front of her. You will have those outliers. You will also have people who do the wrong thing even if the leader is setting a good example.
Next. I think that the willingness to be accountable is inherent in the role of leader. Whether the person embraces it or not separates the leaders-in-title from real leaders.
Thank you for commenting and asking questions.
Your article really speaks so me. I have been in ‘Clair’s’ place enough times to walk through her experience in my sleep. It’s so frustrating to do nothing and just accept the situation when you know that is not going to end well. At the same time, when you speak up, those who believe the Emperors New Clothes were lovely get hot and mad at you – until the truth finally comes out. Then they are just mad. Your questions are stated well and they are needed to drive out the truth. My manager once told me that most people can’t handle my degree of honesty. What?!?!
Jane, I am so sorry you had experiences like Claire’s. I have too.
Most people can’t handle your level of honesty? Who’s problem is that??
I had a boss give me feedback once that my colleagues didn’t like how I approached them. I asked him if he could give me an example so I knew what to change. No examples. That was the end of that discussion. I knew what he was talking about – my direct and honest approach. Couldn’t even be direct with me about it.
When I hear “people can’t handle honesty,” I think we have a significant crisis around conflict management and how to exchange disagreement. I first wanted to call it a lack of maturity, and I still think that fits.
Thanks for commenting, Jane.
Hi, Mary – as always, insightful and focused on courageous action to make things better for all.
I appreciated all of your questions, but this one really got my attention: “What would “cut him some slack” look like?” We are all probably too prone to use colorful and vague language to describe what we want or expect, and getting a clearer picture of what people mean when they say something is essential.
After all, one person’s “Cut him some slack” might be another’s “Don’t hold him accountable” or even “Let him get away without any accountability”:).
Glad I decided to stop by and check out LCG – I am relieved that you all are keeping the faith by keeping us focused on doing better.
Thanks John. I appreciate you picking up on “What would “cut him some slack” look like?” I’m pretty sure Claire’s project leader meant, “Lay off.”
Speaking to your mention of vague language… you are so right. It’s important to get clarity. I have had so many people both tell me that they hear from their employees or their managers, “They say they want more communication,” for instance. Then they want to attend a communications class.
Hold on. What did the person mean? Maybe it turns out the boss wants project updates weekly. Maybe employees want more one-on-one time. That specificity is so important so we don’t rush out and put a lot of effort into something that doesn’t scratch the itch. Then when people still complain then we get deflated. Being human is hard. 😉
So happy you are checking in with us, John. Good to hear from you.