Leadership Myth #5 – Leaders Never Admit to Mistakes

The phrase “mistakes were made” has become almost a metaphor for attempts by organizational leaders to distance themselves from personal culpability.  The term even has its own Wikipedia entry!

What is it that  leads rational, competent men and women to do this, sometimes in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are (to put it politely) talking nonsense?

Chris Argyris, the Harvard professor whose research centered on organizational behaviour, identified a number of causes for this in his classic works: “Teaching Smart People How to Learn” and “Overcoming Organizational Defenses”.

– organizational leaders, particularly those at senior levels, have had very little experience of failure.  Failure is an unknown and is therefore feared.

– because they have very high expectations of themselves, the thought of failing is both embarrassing and emotionally painful

The way people approach social relationships (which most certainly includes the workplace) is governed by “ground rules” which we learned very early in our lives:

    •  ensure that I retain full control over the things that matter to me
    • maximize “winning” and minimize “losing”
    • don’t upset people

Argyris refers to this approach as “Model 1 Behaviour” and notes that “[o]rganizations populated by human beings using Model 1 (which is the “default setting” for all human beings) will necessarily be full of [defensive behaviour] because Model 1 is a defense-producing theory of action.”  He goes on to note that  organizational learning cannot happen in this sort of environment.

If you are a leader that wants to create a culture conducive to individual and corporate learning, what can you do?  It’s simple and yet incredibly difficult.  You need to model the way forward by:

  • being willing to take a “long compassionate look at the real”, starting with acknowledgement of your own mistakes and limitations as well as courageously and humbly naming “the elephants in the room”
  • engaging others in a way that minimizes defensiveness and helps all parties to overcome their “default settings”
  • recognizing that nothing, including yourself, exists in isolation – unilateral control is impossible and attempts to establish it are doomed to failure.

I have found the practice of “Active Engagement for Mindful Leadership” to be incredibly helpful in this regard.  It has made me a better leader and a better Coach.  What do you use?  Let’s talk about it!