Guest Post by Jeffrey A. Kottler, PhD

You really can’t stop failures from occurring. Failure in leadership, like almost everything else in life, does not result from a single mistake or misjudgment, no matter how vigilant you might be. Rather, there are a series of errors never corrected as a result of inadequate feedback and meaningful data as things proceed. Even life expectancy and health problems fail the way all complex systems fall apart, including those within organizations—because of random and gradual factors that are barely noticed.

Recognizing “Illusory Superiority”

Many leaders are absolutely delusional about their own performance, referred to as illusory superiority, the so-called Lake Wobegon effect, named after the fictitious town in Garrison Keillor’s stories where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” There have been so many fascinating—and hilarious—studies of people’s self-judgments about their abilities that are not at all consistent with reality. Something like 98 percent of American high school students believe they are better qualified than their peers to serve in leadership positions. We don’t seem to outgrow this self-inflated vision of our behavior considering that 80 percent of drivers consider themselves more skilled than anyone else on the road and 93 percent of college professors view themselves as far better teachers and researchers than their colleagues. And lest we think that the degree of self-deception among leaders is going to vastly improve, in one study of Stanford MBA students, it was discovered that 90 percent believed themselves better qualified and smarter than their classmates.

Recovering from Mistakes

If mistakes are not exactly preventable, then the real question relates to how best to recover and learn from the experience. Recovering from mistakes has been described as the new most important leadership competency. It certainly helps not to believe in your own infallibility so that you can recognize the times that you mess up. It is also useful to question yourself constantly, as well as to recruit trusted advisers who will be similarly honest and forthright in their observations.

In a review of the empirical research on leadership failures, one author concludes that “what differentiates wonderful and less-than-wonderful leaders is not whether they make mistakes or not, but what they do afterwards.” The errors that leaders make, after making a mistake, include the failure to recognize or acknowledge that they messed up in the first place. Second, there is often a marked reluctance to apologize for the error because of fears that doing so will be seen as weakness or incompetence, even though often the opposite is true since contriteness is viewed as a strength if it is not excessive.

The Art of Apologizing

General George Patton famously slapped and humiliated two soldiers during World War II, berating them as cowards and “gutless bastards” even though they were debilitated, exhibiting symptoms of battle fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder. When word of this incident leaked out, General Dwight Eisenhower ordered Patton to apologize. He did so by claiming his actions were “wholly impersonal” and that, basically, he hadn’t been able to restrain himself from his “loud talking.”

Failures and mistakes need not derail a career or sabotage the best-laid plans.

By contrast, when a passenger was unceremoniously and literally dragged off a United Airlines plane, leading to a spectacular public relations disaster, CEO Oscar Munoz went on an apology tour. But it wasn’t just his intention that helped to calm the waters, it was the way he chose to address the problem by avoiding excuses or blaming others. He accepted full responsibility for the incident in ways that are highly unusual for leaders, who often look for scapegoats.

First, he said, “It’s never too late to do the right thing,” immediately acknowledging the problem rather than making excuses. Next, he agreed that it was a “system failure” for which he felt shame. “We had not provided our front-line supervisors and managers and individuals with the proper tools, policies and procedures that allow them to use common sense,” Munoz asserted. “That’s on me. I have to fix that.” Then, he offered both retribution to those who had been present, as well as a plan to prevent such an event from ever happening again.

In addition, when reporters gave him an easy out and asked whether the passenger in question was, in fact, “belligerent,” or in any way shared some responsibility for the incident, Munoz instead replied, “No, he can’t be. He was a paying passenger sitting in a seat in our aircraft, and no one should be treated that way.” Now that is a perfect example of an apology by a leader who seeks to move forward and learn from failure.

It’s All about Your Response

Failures and mistakes need not derail a career or sabotage the best-laid plans. In fact, if leaders are risk averse and timid, and avoid failure at all costs, they are likely not moving things forward. “You want people to make mistakes,” one CEO explained, “people who don’t make mistakes probably aren’t doing enough.”

The ways that others interpret and respond to defeats depend a great deal on the resilience that the leader shows immediately afterward. In studies of how leaders recover from their mistakes, researchers concluded that people tend to remember the excuses you might have offered but forget the apology over time. That’s why it is so important to act with humility, transparency, authenticity, and courage. After all, people are not only watching closely, they desperately want to follow in your footsteps.

Guest Post

Kottler Author PhotoJeffrey A. Kottler, PhD, is one of the most prolific authors in the fields of psychology and education, having written 90 books about a wide range of subjects related to personal transformation. He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and Professor Emeritus of Counseling at California State University, Fullerton. Dr. Kottler is also the Founder of Empower Nepali Girls, an organization devoted to the protection and mentoring of at-risk children. His most recent books include What You Don’t Know about Leadership, but Probably Should and Change: What Really Leads to Lasting Personal Transformation.

The above excerpt has been adapted from What You Don’t Know about Leadership, but Probably Should by Jeffrey A. Kottler. Copyright © Oxford University Press 2018 and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Photo by varunkul01 on Pixabay
Many leaders suffer from illusory superiority, meaning they are absolutely delusional about their own performance. However, failure is inevitable. Author Jeffrey A. Kottler shares the art of bouncing back when it happens.