Vulnerable Leadership – Admit Your Own Mistakes

In Peter Bregman’s Harvard Business Publishing blog “I Want You To Apologize”, he speaks on the power of an apology.  Those of us in business leadership roles sometimes find it hard to apologize …  especially if the corporate culture discourages such behavior.

Many years ago while playing rugby, I happened to be on the wrong end of a very dirty play.  I was in a vulnerable position and one of my competitors took a real shot at hurting me.  After the play moved on, I found myself sprinting toward the guilty party and as I got closer, I realized my options were limited.  He was bigger, looked menacing and seemed to be itching for a fight.  Without thinking, I ran up to him, put my hand out to shake his hand and said to him “you’re too good of a player to resort to do what you just did.”  He was stunned.  He was actually ready to fight.  Nothing else was said on the pitch, but when we met after the match for a pint, he apologized, I accepted and we moved on.

I’ve used a similar technique in business leadership roles ever since.  It has changed a bit as it morphed in the sandbox of leading people and I’ve renamed it “vulnerable leadership.”   Leaders can often feel let down by the performance of their staff.  They have the urge to run down the hall and really “give it to” that incompetent wretch!  Well this approach may make you feel better … for 30 seconds …. but it always has a long term negative impact.

Many leaders talk about empowerment, encourage their staff to ask for help, ask colleagues to bring mistakes and errors to light, but if the leader is viewed as flawless, it is very difficult to approach them with a whopping mistake.

The basic concept of “vulnerable leadership” is that leaders need to admit their own mistakes.  Show you are vulnerable.  Use examples.  Show you are a real person and you’ll be amazed how a culture can change from one that holds everything in and hides mistakes to one an open culture where mistakes are looked upon as tuition.  People will begin to ask for help before they bury themselves and the organization.

Thanks for the reminder, Peter.  All businesses would work better if the culture encouraged a simple apology.

My bad!

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