Does Being a Leader Mean Never Having to Say You’re Sorry?

It’s time to come clean with the readers. I admit that I totally lost it at work two weeks ago. I succumbed to the pressure of being part of the team charged with the integration of my recently sold division into the structure of its new owners, the prospect of being unemployed after the integration is complete and the unreasonable demands of my new “interim” superiors to speed up the process. Yes, I lost it. Late on a Friday afternoon, I unleashed my own frustrations on the staff accountant who reports to me. I was tired and drained. When the accountant approached me to review a project he was working on and asked about taking some time off the following week, I fired off a fusillade of the same phrases and comments that I’d been inundated with over the previous few days: “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.” “What you’re saying makes no sense.” “You’re not helping me here.” “I need this NOW not tomorrow.” “Don’t leave work until you have the answers.” The accountant’s eyes widened in shock and then turned down at the floor as he artfully backed out of my office. I thought that it would make me feel better to “share the wealth” of the hammerings I’d taken. The opposite occurred. I knew what I had done. I felt bad about the incident all weekend and the first thing Monday morning, I apologized for my tirade. The accountant thanked me but told me that it was no big deal. He understood what was going on. I felt much better after that and resumed my tasks. Our relationship had been repaired.

Having been on the receiving end of tirades, lies, insults, unfair dress downs, smartass comments, unreasonable demands and the like both personally and as a member of various groups over the years (and right now for that matter), I have always vowed to never act in such a manner toward my direct reports. Some would call it unprofessional behavior. I agree. But the theme of this post goes beyond just what constitutes unprofessional behavior. It goes to the core values of personal responsibility, contrition and leadership. You see in over thirty-five years of working in business and reporting to countless managers and executives, I can only remember two who have ever apologized for any of the above. Hats off to them. They were widely respected individuals. Hey, I’m no psychologist or philosopher. I’m just trying to get into the heads of these other characters to see what makes them tick and why they act the way they do.

Is it a cultural thing? From the time that I was a small boy, I remember hearing that admitting you were wrong or apologizing was a sign of weakness. Leaders didn’t do that because it made them look weak and they needed to look strong. Where did that come from? I’ve always rejected that theory. Maybe it was a result my religious and family upbringing.

Sometimes I think that these characters actually believe that their cause is so important that they feel vindicated by their acts and therefore need no contrition for them at all. Hmmm! Making some clerk feel like an idiot because they forgot to include someone on a distribution list is no way to gain any respect.

I also think that others actually believe that the things they say under pressure or on the spur of the moment should be forgiven out of hand by the recipient of the remarks. It’s as though their rank and status automatically insulates them from the need to make amends. Their thought process works something like this, “THEY should know that I didn’t really mean to say that.” Sorry Charlie, if you really didn’t mean it, say so! That rationalization only reinforces your image as a complete ass.

Others yet could never admit they made a mistake if the facts hit them in the head like a sledgehammer. Are they really too big and important to make such an admission? Would that be such a blow to their pumped up egos? I dread to think about the way they conduct their personal lives.

I’ve seen many examples of this behavior over the years and am still perplexed about how to explain it. Is this something taught at the “Double Secret Society of bad Executives”? Take George Miller for example. George was the Vice President of Operations at a company that I worked for a few years ago. George had real penchant for getting his facts wrong about our plant’s productivity and the intelligence and capabilities of several of our employees. He seemed to take particular delight in spouting off misinformation during meetings with the CEO of the company. His comments would always make us look like fools in the eyes of the top dog. We had no idea how or from where he was obtaining this bad information. If anyone tried to correct him during these meetings, he’d simply change the subject without any amendment of his commentary. Even after the meetings, he would continue to spout his erroneous data and ignore the corrections. This was really chilling to those about whom he had made disparaging comments without any basis in fact. His antics nearly destroyed the reputation and career of one of our managers.

Gene Jones was another one of these types who used a slightly different tactic when caught in a lie or confronted with contradictory information. Whenever backed into a corner, Gene would immediately respond with the words, ”You’re right!” – even though we all knew that he didn’t mean it. One could just tell from his flippant tone and body language that he was already plotting his revenge for getting busted. I saw many good employees suffer due to his vindictiveness.

Then there’s Carl, the executive from our new parent company who’s in charge of the integration of our division. I was actually warned about Carl by another manager from that firm. “Carl is never wrong. Even if he is, he’ll never admit it. He’ll tell you one thing one day and another thing the next. Don’t even try to argue with him. He’s always right even though he’ll change his mind a hundred times. Carl’s not always truthful, so take everything he says with a grain of salt. He could care less about anyone. It’s all about him” “How can they let him get away with that?” I asked in reply. “They’re all like that at his level,” came the response. Boy, am I glad that I won’t be working for that company after the integration.

About the closest thing to an apology or act of contrition on the part of one of these characters that I’ve experienced came from a former division president to whom I directly reported some years ago. I had approached this gentleman and voiced my frustrations about being ignored with regard to some serious issues confronting the business. My motivation was to voice my concern about being cut out of the process and to offer my assistance. His response to my frustration was simply; “I apologize but don’t apologize for keeping you out of the loop and ignoring you. I have a company to run and I’m extremely busy.” I apologize but don’t apologize. Just what in the hell does that mean?

Interestingly enough, some defenders of these behaviors would counter my rant with “It’s lonely at the top” or “You just don’t understand the pressure that these leaders are under.” What lame excuses! I always thought that a leader’s role was to be responsible. If they take no responsibility for their own actions, how they can hold others responsible?

Others would say, “That’s the price you pay for being a leader.” Huh? I thought that we were supposed to respect and admire these people.

At this point in the rant, I’d like to make one thing abundantly clear: Leaders oftentimes have to make unpopular and tough decisions. I fully recognize and respect that. But let’s draw a distinction between DECISIONS and BEHAVIORS. If the definition of a strong leader includes losing the respect of your subordinates because of your behaviors, call me “weak”.

I do not want to sound political here, but with government leaders offering apologizes on behalf of their nations for past events that their current citizenry took no part in at all, what’s wrong with business leaders offering apologies for things that they’ve done in the here and now?

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