Everyday leadership: When failure occurs, leaders must look within themselves

Several years ago, I worked with a leader who had experienced a sizeable amount of success. We will call him Jim for the purpose of this article. One of my responsibilities was to organize a semi-annual meeting of the presidents of the eighteen different divisions of the parent company. In these meetings, Jim would pound into his staff of division presidents the need to grow each of the divisions at a rate of 10 percent or more. The results were that some divisions were successful in accomplishing their growth goals and others repeatedly failed.

One day, Jim and I met in the restroom and we began talking about the recent president’s meeting. We moved the discussion to his office and he asked, “Glenn, why do you think we have not been successful in growing the business by 10 percent a year?” I responded, “Well, Jim, it appears to me that there could be at least three different reasons why more divisions have failed to reach the 10 percent growth goal than have made it.”

Jim tilted his head to one side and demanded, “Tell me more.” I continued, “One possibility is that the goal is not doable or is perceived as not doable by the division presidents. If that is the case, then move to a doable goal that is important to the business. Second, maybe you don’t have the right people in the right positions to lead the divisions to accomplish the goal. If that is the case, it is your job to staff the organization for success. Finally, if you really believe the goal is doable, you need to spend some time coaching the division presidents in how you would reach the goal if you were in their shoes.”

Jim thought for a few minutes with his hand rubbing his chin and finally said, “You are right. I don’t have the right people in the right positions.” I was a little disappointed because of the three options I laid out to him, he chose the least attractive one for him, his division presidents and for the company as a whole. He chose the suggestion that was a quick fix. It takes more time to coach the fifteen division presidents than to replace them. The second suggestion of changing the goal would be an admission of failure by Jim and in his mind was unacceptable.

When failure occurs, good leaders look at themselves to determine their part in the failure and to invent remedial actions. When changes are required to enable followers to be successful, they are willing to institute those changes even though it may be seen as a failure on the leader’s part. The very last option, not the first, is to blame the followers. All blaming accomplishes is less success and less trust in the future.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s completely revised, third printing of The Facilitative Leader: Behaviors that Enable Success, visit his Web site, www.raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.