One of the memorable traditions of my upbringing was confessing my sins to a priest. It became a monthly practice of my early childhood, one I both detested and looked forward to.
The detestable part was the forced reflection on the many ways in which I had fallen short during the preceding month. I didn’t enjoy taking an honest look at myself, at my lying, sneakiness, unkind speech, picking fights with my siblings or stealing food from the school cafeteria. Those reminders about my far-from-perfect character generated discomfort; it would have been more pleasant to quietly tuck them under a rug.
At the same time, I looked forward to the unburdening of shame and self-blame. Taking responsibility for my wrongs brought them out into the light where they could be admitted, scrutinized and forgiven. The ritual always ended with some form of restitution: What am I going to do to set things straight? Burdens got lifted because responsibility was taken.
Much later in life, I discovered that the major spiritual traditions, along with programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, promote the confession of wrongs as a central tenet. An ancient Buddhist sutra captures this essential truth of all religions: If one hides the evil, it adds and grows. If one bares it and repents, the sin dies out. Therefore the wise do not hide sin.
The importance of acknowledging mistakes is not just a religious issue; it’s a leadership marker. Admitting wrongs and making amends largely defines a leader’s credibility.
Although being wrong is inevitable—nobody gets very far into any day without making a mistake—I have noticed that leaders often hesitate to acknowledge prejudices and personal judgment errors.
When I reflected on my own shortcomings in this area, it wasn’t difficult to come up with “confession” examples:
For most of my life, I believed that overweight people are undisciplined and unmotivated to be healthy. I regret entertaining such blatant prejudice. Getting to know a few high-integrity individuals who happen to be obese helped me question my stereotype.
Very recently, I believed that challenge was more important to growth than compassion. I was wrong about that. Both have their place, and integration of the two is a more mature goal than favoring one over another.
I used to equate charisma and political skill with leadership effectiveness. Experience has shown me that many charismatic, politically astute leaders have landed in jail, while some of the most respected leaders I know say they are boring or lucky.
In the past, if a belief or value worked well for me, I would try to convince others to believe it, too. Consequently, I harbored a “persuading” mindset. That was an immature and disrespectful behavior pattern which I regret.
I believed that marriages lasting less than a lifetime were failures and that people who divorced were quitters. Personal experience and more careful research helped me deepen that simplistic view. I came to see that while quitters and failures do exist, good marriages can end and bad marriages can last. It’s more complicated than I wanted to believe.
I grew up with a strong value judgment that tattoos cheapened those who sported them. Then I heard people I respect talk about the rationale for their tattoos. It became difficult to lump all tattoo wearers into my convenient box of judgments. I was wrong about my limiting belief.
I believed that doing things for others could only mean that I am generous and caring. I have since come to believe that doing things for others is just as likely to be controlling and selfish. It depends on the context and on what’s driving the helpfulness.
Sometimes ego gets in the way of self-responsibility and the admission of wrongs.
The swagger that often defines a leader’s effectiveness in the external world of customers can backfire when carried too far internally. Employees and partners mostly prefer humble, genuine leaders who know their own limits and can admit when they are off base.
Admitting a wrong
I saw a moving example of this in a large client firm. The president (I’ll call him Kevin) challenged the members of his leadership team to accomplish an ambitious, culture-shifting project by the end of the year. They failed to do so in several key areas. Here’s what he said at a leadership team debriefing:
“There were plenty of mistakes made in this endeavor, but the biggest dropped ball was my own. I repeatedly chose to get involved in the weeds of the project instead of making the time to deliver quality coaching to each of you. Had I done that, I am convinced, many of the traps could have been avoided. I’m not saying I’m totally responsible, but I know I played a big part and I want you to know: 1. That I know it; 2. That I regret my lapse of judgment; and 3. That I’ve learned from it.”
I was privileged to be sitting in the room during that meeting. The attentiveness displayed by Kevin’s direct reports was unswerving, and the respect for him palpable. What footing was lost by the failure of the project to that point was regained and surpassed in the next six months, with success following.
That’s the power of a leader who can acknowledge being wrong.
John Engels is president of Rochester-based Leadership Coaching Inc. and a frequent presenter on leadership, relationship management and emotional maturity. He can be reached at [email protected]
8/29/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]