I’m reading a great book by the TED-Talk Superstar Brene Brown called Daring Greatly. If you watched her TED Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” like 26 Million people have, then you know she is a powerful and thought-provoking communicator. This book is about overcoming shame, and it’s one that every leader would do well to read because in your quest to become self-aware, a key ingredient to effective leadership, you are going to come face to face with shame.
In the book she tells about an experience where she messed up, and in her effort to practice what she calls “Shame Resilience” she told herself this, “If you own this story, you get to write how it ends.” Wow! Sage Counsel. I suppose some might hear that and in a cynical way, reply, “Oh, that’s right. Cover it up. Spin it. Dodge it. Deflect it. Distract. Distract. Distract. Get out ahead of it. Change the narrative. etc.” There’s no denying that this is the way a lot of people attempt to cope with the moment of truth when they are confronted with wrongdoing. However, that’s neither what Brown was suggesting, nor what it means to own your mistakes.
To own it, doesn’t mean to deny it. It means just the opposite. It means to admit your wrong. Period. End of sentence. End of Chapter…But not end of story. Not by any means. When you admit you’ve done something wrong, it takes you through an unpleasant journey that will often last longer than you think, and be more difficult than you expect. There will be lots of opportunities to quit, give up, and/or make more mistakes when you’re on that journey, and at times you may feel justified in doing any number of things that are not really what you want to characterize your life, nor be things about which you will feel proud. However, that journey will also provide even MORE opportunities to write an ending to the story that is much better than the moment of failure might suggest.
I’ve been in a few too many meetings where good leaders make bad mistakes even worse by refusing to own the story. When confronted with an incident and the opportunity to offer an apology, an admission, or even an explanation–it’s met with awkward silence, rationale, counter-attacks, or denials. The refusal to own mistakes does not keep judgment suspended. Typically, it leads to a loss of respect that resembles a Dow Jones Crash like Black Monday. Sometimes, that loss is worse than the mistake. In every case, it leads to consequences far worse than would have been had the leader simply said something like, “I made a mistake.” “That was a bad decision.” “I shouldn’t have done that.” “I was wrong.”
So how do you write how it ends?
It starts with admitting your mistake. Ask offended people and stakeholders to forgive you. Included in that is taking any steps you can to rectify the situation. Making reparations should be something that leaders do because it’s the right thing to do, not because they have to do it. And the attitude shouldn’t be to do the least possible amount to “Get them off your back!” Leaders should go the extra mile when it comes to reparations. It may be unpleasant and costly in some ways, but it will be worth it in the long run.
That’s the start, but it’s not the end. To write how that story ends requires that you make a realistic assessment of what went wrong. Why did you do it? What’s the backstory? This can be a painful experience, but it’s important to be brutally honest with yourself. Get some other people who you trust to help you make as good of a diagnosis as you possibly can. Getting professional help from a qualified counselor can be very helpful, too. You have to determine to grow from the experience. Maybe that means to develop a stronger character. It may mean to repair a relationship (or a lot of relationships!) It may mean to start putting into practice some better behaviors like listening more, setting a better example, or getting a better grip on how subordinates really perceive you.
Finally, it means demonstrating a changed behavior in the future. It’s not enough just to say, “That’s a weakness” or “It’s just how I am” or “I’m trying.” That may make you feel better, but it’s not writing the ending of the story that you think it is. If you’ve been micromanaging your team, stop it. If you’ve done things that violated trust, rebuild it. Become trustworthy.
No one is perfect. You don’t have to be a perfect leader to be an effective leader. However, you have to clean up your messes and strive to keep growing as a leader. That’s how you write the ending you want to write.