Recently I shared some thoughts on competent vs charismatic leadership. This is almost a footnote to that post addressing something a little more fundamental. One thing that underpins all competent leadership is integrity and character. I want to focus on humility in particular, admitting mistakes and where necessary apologising - in short the ability to say ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong‘.
In various schools, colleges, exam boards and churches I have served leaders with humility and also those who would go to great lengths to avoid admitting any mistakes. I have aways admired leaders who have the integrity to take responsibility for their mistakes and the humility to admit they don’t have all the answers. Yet why don’t we always act this way? I think the root is an insecurity and fear of what others might think. We are reluctant to appear vulnerable or to show perceived weakness so we keep up this mad pretence that we are perfect and never put a foot wrong.
I would argue that in spite of any short term benefits, this is one of the worst things we can do for an organisation’s culture and health
An inevitable consequence of working in an institution where mistakes are not acknowledged is that people stop speaking up about what could be better. They spend each and every day trying to cover their own mistakes and praying that they are not found out. Seeing humility in my leaders allows me to also admit to my mistakes. If I know that leaders make mistakes, then I feel secure and confident to own up to my own mistakes. I recognise that the boss is human like me and it is a relief!
Where leaders do not admit mistakes, it is the followers who end up getting the blame for everything. It is clear to everyone that something hasn't worked yet if management has not got it wrong then who has? Those lower in the organisation start to cop the blame for everything - it may not be deliberate but the fault must lie somewhere. It may be expressed as ‘we had a good plan, but your delivery of that plan was inconsistent or half hearted.’ Pretty soon the followers realise that everything is their fault and they become demoralised.
Admitting mistakes enables us to move on and move forward - where mistakes are not confessed, bitterness and hurt remains. It is difficult to forgive where there has not been repentance. (Yes, I’m a theologian...) When hurt and wounded individuals speak, they often bring up the past, they cannot move on. After all it is easier for the one who has caused the injury to move on than the persons who have been injured. Easier said than done but by trying to deal with issues as they arise, the past becomes less of a shadow and we can start to face the future and move forward. We are able to ask ‘what now?’ rather than going round in circles on the ‘why’. A failure to address the past risks trapping everyone there.
So whilst according to the song, sorry might be the hardest word, it is a vital addition to our vocabulary and leaders brave enough to apologise will ultimately preside over healthier institutions.