Don't Do What I Did -- Learning from My Leadership Failure


Today's blog entry comes from the Tim Spiker "I Wish I'd Been a Better Person" Leadership Hall of Fame...or should that be Hall of Shame? Many years ago I was leading a large leadership development event for a food distributor in the Southeastern US. I was working side by side with a number of trusted colleagues. Chief among those colleagues was Rulo. If there's ever been a person on whom one could count, it was Rulo. Willing to stay late? Certainly. Admits mistakes? Yes. Cares about doing a great job? Deeply. Easy to get along with? Definitely. Rulo was a joy with whom to work.

Near the end of this multi-day event, I asked Rulo about a detail -- adding personalized labels to each attendee's thank-you-for-attending gift -- that had not yet been executed. Placing these labels would fall to one of our key subcontractors that Rulo was responsible for managing. To be clear, these labels were the very definition of "a detail." They were a nice-to-have element that no one would miss if it weren't completed. In the midst of pulling off something as massive as this event, this opportunity would rightly be at the bottom of the list of priorities.

When I asked Rulo about it, I received a very unexpected response. As opposed to the usual, "Absolutely. Whatever it takes!" attitude I'd grown accustomed to over the years from Rulo, I got hesitancy and a lack of openness. I was perplexed and concerned so I quickly pulled him to the side and re-established our standards. I told Rulo that I needed/we needed/the attendees needed a different attitude from him. We needed that can-do attitude Rulo had so consistently displayed as long as I'd known him. Feeling that I had accurately addressed the heart of the matter -- Rulo's attitude -- I went back to my other duties. But all was not well.

A number of days later, I learned that my attitude adjustment session had very negatively impacted Rulo. He thought he'd been doing yeoman's work (which he had) and that his attitude was anything but a problem. I decided to sit down with Rulo to understand better what had happened.

During the first three days of the event, Rulo had been working hard to manage our relationship with the subcontractor who would have applied the personalized labels in question. The lines for what we could and couldn't ask from the subcontractor weren't clear as per our new contract with them. Not wanting to damage our long-term relationship with this very capable subcontractor or the immediate execution of the event, Rulo had spent the entire event determining moment by moment what was and wasn't worth asking the subcontractor to do. Rulo had been walking a difficult tightrope, a tightrope we wanted and needed him to walk. He had been in a delicate and stressful situation and had handled it with tact and wisdom just as we would have hoped he would.

Rulo's best assessment was that asking the sub to handle the labels wasn't worth what it would cost relationally. Thus the hesitance and lack of openness that I observed. In the moment of my corrective conversation with him, there was neither enough time nor an easy way for Rulo to explain all of this to me. It's no wonder that my standard-resetting discussion wasn't inspiring or helpful in bringing a key player back online after a momentary lapse of reason.

The only person having a momentary lapse of reason was me.

I Couldn't Escape Myself

Somehow I was able to see a trusted colleague behaving in an unusual and unexpected way without becoming curious. Instead of leaning into my historical knowledge of Rulo, I decided it was time to re-establish the attitude we needed to execute and succeed. What should have birthed curiosity instead birthed judgment that led to a fracture in our relationship and discouragement for a key player in the midst of a stressful and important moment.

Instead of re-establishing standards, I should have told Rulo what a great colleague he was, shared that his response to the situation was unusual, and asked him if there was anything going on that I should know about. Had I done that, I would have been able to affirm him while learning that he was handling a delicate relational dynamic just as we hoped he would.

As Rulo and I discussed the situation the following week, we came to a simple and embarrassingly obvious conclusion that I needed to learn:

When something doesn't make sense, there's something I don't know.

These are words that I now try to live and lead by. If I want to understand what is really going on when someone's behavior is odd or confusing, I need to get genuinely curious and do so without judgment or assumption. This truth is especially critical for leaders to understand.

As leaders, we sit in positions of power and authority. If we aren't careful with our admonishments, we can damage not only the moment but long-term relationships and our own reputations as well. No doubt, there are times when standards need to be re-established. There are times when those we lead need to know that we're unhappy. But if we mistime or misunderstand those moments, we may find ourselves trying to make up for it weeks, months, and sometimes even years later.

The biggest problem wasn't that I didn't understand all that was going on, it was that I didn't give Rulo the benefit of the doubt. In a moment, I magically suppressed years, literally years, of wonderful attitude and behavior from a trusted follower. I ignored mountains of goodwill that Rulo had established. This problem points to meaningful character flaws in me, the leader: the flaws of judgment, a bent toward believing the worst about someone, and the arrogance of assuming I understood all that was going on.

Who we are as a people is always impacting our effectiveness as leaders.  In my interaction with Rulo during the event, my underdevelopment as a person kept me from leading well. Those flaws in me had a tangible, significant, immediate, and negative impact on both an important project and an important person.

What I (and You!) Will Do Next Time

The next time I see odd behavior from a trusted team member, I will (hopefully) be triggered to remember that when something doesn't make sense, there's something I don't know. In response, I hope copious amounts of curiosity will flow out of me. Between now and then, I want to become the type of leader (and person!) that is slow to judge, even in stressful situations. If I utilize the opportunities life offers me to become a more grace-filled and less judgmental person (as it does on nearly a daily basis), I will become a better leader.

If you suffer from character flaws similar to mine, you have the same opportunity in front of you. Perhaps you can become a leader who reacts with deep curiosity before you have a "Rulo Moment" of your own.

Share Your Thoughts: Have you ever been denied the benefit of the doubt by a leader whom you had followed well? Have you ever jumped to an erroneous conclusion about those you lead? What were the repercussions? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.

photo credit: 3D Judges Gavel via photopin(license)

Click here to receive free postings from Tim Spiker and The Aperio. As a thank you, you'll receive the first two chapters of The Only Leaders Worth Following: Why Some Leaders Succeed, Others Fail, and How the Quality of Our Lives Hangs in the Balance.