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Everyone makes mistakes; how you handle them is the measure of a true leader
Sometimes it seems that in this country we've gone from having a culture inclined toward hero worship to one that rejoices in tearing down potential heroes. Whereas once people were willing to be caught up in the idealism and romance of a John F. Kennedy, even if it meant ignoring his peccadilloes (think Marilyn Monroe), today we'd rather dig for faults, so that not even the memory of a beneficent figure such as Mother Teresa is safe from snarling attacks.
Sander A. Flaum
Maybe it comes from television programs like Lost or Survivor, where bad behavior is a focus of almost every episode. Surely political debacles like former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's Emperor's VIP Club scandal and current New York Gov. David Paterson's confession of numerous extramarital affairs (to say nothing of the accusations surrounding the presidential campaign) make us wonder about the credibility and integrity of our leaders in business and politics.
There's a good side to this cynicism, I suppose—it reminds us that we are imperfect people working for imperfect institutions. But what can you do with that insight?
As a leader, if you want people to follow, you have to be honest about who you are and the mistakes you make. Without doubt, great leaders have feet of clay like the rest of us; but they must have the integrity to admit their flaws openly, and be prepared to make wrongs right—even if it costs them. If a leader can admit mistakes, correct them, and move on, imagine the empowerment that will give other people to take risks, make mistakes, admit mistakes, change, and grow. It takes courage, mixed with a good dose of humility and self-esteem, to admit mistakes because we're conditioned from early on to believe that people won't like us if we're flawed. But, in fact, such courage will only allow them to understand us better.
Leadership is difficult because it cuts against the grain of our conditioning. Focusing on the notion of principles enables us to admit our mistakes, air them, struggle to make them right, and move forward. When a leader can do that, she will have loyal followers—because it proves that she's human, just like the rest of us.
Of course, there are times—regrettably, too many—when leaders do not do the right thing. They may make an impulsive decision, neglect to let colleagues know their decisions, decline feedback, embarrass a someone publicly, or hire an unqualified old friend. These things happen. Leaders must get to a place where they can apologize (publicly, if necessary) and take the necessary steps to right those wrongs.
Something I've learned over the years—and that I've tried to pass on to my direct reports at Euro RSCG Becker and now at Flaum Partners—is that you should apologize and admit when you've made a mistake. I can tell you, this is not a skill that came easily to me, but it's been one of the most important I've developed as a company head. It brings humility and humanity to the process. Even flexibility!
If you choose to lead, be assured that you will make mistakes, that you might even hurt your own or your organization's credibility. Most of the time, however, even if there's a price to be paid, you will be able to make a correction. And that, in a world of imperfect people and institutions, is very good news.
Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners and chairman, Fordham Graduate School of Business, Leadership Forum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org