Friday, March 11, 2011

Leaders Don't Screw Up, Right?

Part of the human condition is to screw up from time to time, and sometimes to screw up rather badly.  In the fourteenth century there was a young man who earned his living as a scribe at the monastery.  He worked in the writing room called the Scriptorium.  His job was to copy the Bible for the Monks.  One day he was working on the third chapter of Luke, the long genealogy which traces Jesus back through the generations all the way to Adam.  

Now the manuscript before him was in two columns as almost all ancient manuscripts were.  But instead of copying the first column and then the second column, he absent mindedly copied straight across the line from the first column, followed immediately by the comparable line in the second column.  The result you can imagine.  This document, called  Codex 109, was saved for centuries and is on display at the British Library.

Imagine that?  Your screw up, saved for centuries and placed on display.

Did I Invent Screw Ups?
OK, maybe I didn't invent them, but I must be a Charter Member of the Club.  So what happens when a leader makes a mistake?  What happens when I make a mistake?  Is it swept under the rug as quickly as I can grab my leadership broom? Do I reach for my "people under me to blame" list?  Or, do I swing by the Scapegoat Cafe and order a slice of denial?  As much as we may want to avoid admitting our mistakes, it's actually a good leadership practice.

Leaders Are Humans Too
One of my early negative role models was one of two brothers who owned the company where I worked.  He threw papers across meeting room tables, belittled my team, and generally presented himself as an arrogant young rich guy who inherited the company from his father.  So early on in my career, long before I was in a formal leadership role, I knew there were certain things I would never do once I had the privilege to lead others.  For that, I continue to thank him for being such a "good" example.  Yes, he was human; but he never admitted that he made any mistakes.  Fail!

You and I are human too, and we probably made a mistake today (or at least this week.)  What did we do about it?  Did we accept it, acknowledge it, and move forward?  Or, did we take a break from our Open Door Policy and slam that door shut?  Ouch.  I hope I didn't do that.

They're Watching 
One thing I've never completely grown accustomed to is the concept that employees are always watching me.  Not because I'm so special, but because I'm in a leadership role.  Recently I met one of our employees and introduced myself.  He responded by saying, "Oh, I know who you are!"  You see, even though we still feel like ourselves; to the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of employees we work with, we are much more than just ourselves.  We have a tremendous privilege, and need to be real when we serve in these roles.

That means admitting mistakes. 

How About You
Are you the perfect leader that gave up making mistakes long ago?  Or, are you one of those rare folks who actually shows your human side to those around you when you screw up?  Just imagine what the employees will think if you turn out to be a thinking, feeling, real person after all?  

Now where did I put that parchment paper?  I have someone's bad evaluation that I want to finish and send to a museum.

I'd love to hear from you.

No Excuses.

Pics courtesy of Google/Codex Alexandrinus and

1 comment:

  1. This is the second piece I have read in two days on perfection. I read another post from the the real evil hr lady. She too admonished us to admit our failures and deal with them. It is easy to forget that when you are in leadership you are on the stage and everyone is watching and taking notes. Hopefully my screw ups will only last a week or two and not be on display for the ages.