Taking the credit for a bonehead decision is tough, especially when your career/life hangs in the balance on that decision. Machiavelli once said “All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively”. Niccolo Machiavelli known for his win at all cost leave no prisoners philosophy actually has a great point when it comes to decision making and accountability. Today’s leaders constantly face tough situations and in my opinion paid the big bucks to make big decisions, yet many of them are slippery in holding themselves accountable when those decisions fail. Whether it’s someone saying “It’s on me” or “I’m sorry” for an incompetent decision, more times than not we get the “spin cycle” without a clear answer on WHAT THE HELL HAPPEN? Super Bowl XLIX (2015) will probably go down as the most talked about “leadership” moment in sports history. Those of you who saw the game are probably thinking I’m referring to the questionable decision by the Seattle Seahawks football coach; actually I’m alluding to his answers after the game regarding his decision. Most people are in alignment in saying he made one of the worst play calls in Super Bowl history which is probably more hyperbole than accurate, it definitely appears to be not a well-informed decision after the fact. But, the Seattle Seahawks coach’s answer after the game was more striking:
“Boy this is a hard thing to take and I know that there are so many people on the outside, the 12s, our fans and the people that love us so much and the people that follow us so closely. I hope they can only imagine how it hurts our players that have worked and done so much and put so much forth to be champions today. The coaches, the families and all that stuff, everybody feels it. Let me just tell you what happened because as you know, the game comes right down and all the things that happened before are meaningless to you now. It’s really what happened on this one sequence that we would have won the game, we have everything in mind, how we’re going to do it, we’re going to leave them no time, and we had our plays to do it. We sent in our personnel, they sent in goal line, it’s not the right matchup for us to run the football, so on second down we throw the ball really to kind of waste that play. If we score we do, if we don’t, then we’ll run it in on third and fourth down. Really, with no second thoughts or no hesitation in that at all. And unfortunately, with the play that we tried to execute, the guy makes a great play and jumps in front of the route and makes an incredible play that nobody would ever think he could do. And unfortunately that changes the whole outcome. So I told the guys in the locker room that they’re a great team and they fought to prove that, and they did everything to do that again tonight. And they’re on the precipice of winning another championship, and unfortunately, the play goes the other way. There’s really nobody to blame but me, and I told them that clearly. And I don’t want them to think anything other than that. They busted their tails and did everything they needed to do to put us in position, and unfortunately it didn’t work out. A very, very hard lesson. I hate to learn the hard way, but there’s no other way to look at it right now. Unfortunately that’s what happens. So what do you want to know?”
If there’s any silver lining to be uncovered after a bad leadership decision, one would hope that the person in charge takes full accountability and I appreciated the coach doing just that.
Today’s most effective leader simply knows what they stand for and follows their own values and ethics. They are inspired to endure difficulty, taking intelligent risks, and uncommonly make themselves uncomfortable in order to be about their values. I’ve always respected and valued leaders in my career that demonstrated courage, decisiveness, and lived with their decisions. Resolute leaders tackle problems and deal with issues head on…they don’t avoid them. One of the things I find interesting is that when decisions are made and they fail often times it’s not the failed decision that’s upsetting; it’s the reaction after the decision. Most of us go insanely mad when there’s NO ACCOUNTABILITY after a poor decision, we almost forget about the actual bad decision. As noted in the “managers playbook” there are situations and decisions in which the most appropriate action carries with it a backlash of negative reactions, concerns, complaints, problems and even the possibility of personal risk…it comes with the territory. However, a competency many leaders lack is the ability to effectively communicate accountability after a failed decision. I liked the answer from the Seattle Seahawks football coach after his risky decision that failed because it wasn’t a diatribe of cliché’s or measured response; it was simply “I am to blame”. “I am to blame” takes courage but more than courage it takes a moment of self-reflection and personal principle. Principled leaders are diamonds and when you identify them….you keep them. They ALWAYS know what they stand for and behave in ways consistent with their values, the old saying “what you see is what you get with him/her” often refers to them. An area of leadership often overlooked is “Consistent Leadership”. We’ve all had in our careers the “Two-Headed” manager where you didn’t know which personality you were going to get on a day-to-day basis. Consistent leadership whether it’s good or bad at least provides a predictable outcome of how a decision will be made based on prior behaviors. The challenge with inconsistent leadership is that it sometimes calls into question principled or ethical leadership, which of course undermines “leading courageously”. Leading courageously also requires sometimes going against the grain even when it differs from what others with higher authority or power want. Everyone has heard of “managing up” which I’ve coined Internal Influence & Negotiation. It’s a basic strategy that when you want to implement something that isn’t popular, getting a thorough understanding of the opposition’s point of view before you make a final decision is always prudent. I typically encourage those I mentor that prior to presenting your position in favor of a decision decide how strongly and for how long you are willing to push or stand firm on a position. What is your bottom line? Are there compromise opportunities? Then extremely important pay attention to the impact of your behavior so you can accurately monitor its effect on the other party. Whatever the outcome is of your request, be gracious because being courageous takes an abundance of humility.
Dealing with Poor Decisions
We know that every decision will not have the desired outcome, that’s just reality. They say humility is the 1st order of business when dealing with a poor decision, and I tend to agree with that sentiment. Addressing the consequences of a poor decision is never easy especially when you have the “after the facts savants” telling you what decision you should have made. While it’s fitting to demonstrate some humility in accepting the consequences from a poor decision, I submit that confidence is right up there as a complimenting behavior to humility. Lack of confidence may result in the perception that you cannot handle or manage crisis which is not a valued leadership trait. When dealing with the repercussions from a poor decision I’ve always maintained the position to not overreact even if the situation is severe. Our worst reactions on conflicts happen when the mind doesn’t have time to unscramble and what occurs is another bad decision based on the original decision (a cycling of bad decisions). Below are steps to consider when dealing with a bad decision:
- Slow Down: The immediate reaction to a poor decision is to make it better quickly, which leads to another bad decision that is emotional….not operational.
- Take Inventory: It’s always best to reverse course and identify the origin of the decision made (e.g. prior experience, similar circumstances etc). When backtracking for reasons why the decision was made there’s always an opportunity for “lesson’s learned” and personal development.
- Own it: Perhaps the most important step is taking responsibility for the decision. Crisis from poor decisions arise when there’s no accountability, because there’s a human reaction to find blame….even if it was the best decision under difficult circumstances.
- Communicate Effectively: The sharks come out when an explanation regarding a poor decision is ambiguous at best. Clarity is key when explaining the reason for a particular decision; most of us are not as experienced as politicians are at spinning answers when it comes to addressing poor decisions.
- Exercise Humility: If the decision made impacted others in a negative way apologizing to those affected is always a good 1st step…however it shouldn’t end there. Providing transparency on WHY the decision was made increases accountability and places context around the decision. A simple “I’m sorry” is not enough.
- File Away: History does have a tendency to repeat itself, chalk the decision up as a “lesson’s learned” but file it so that it can be referred to later. The absolute worst decisions are those that are made over and over again, and are not learned from.
One of the best quotes out there on accountability:
“Accountability breeds response-ability”
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