Thursday, October 22, 2009


One of the hardest things for leaders to do is to own their mistakes. Humble pie is a pastry that is never tasty. But Winston Churchill said, "The price of greatness is responsibility." As leaders we are not always going to get it right. But when we get it wrong we need to know what was wrong, admit what was wrong, and remedy what was wrong. Admitting wrongdoing is a lost art that people are longing to see come into vogue. An episode of Seinfeld illustrates this beautifully. Jerry walks into a dry cleaners with a shirt that has obviously been shrunken:

Dry Cleaner: May I help you?
Jerry: Yeah, I picked up this shirt here yesterday. It's completely shrunk. There's absolutely no way I can wear it.

Dry Cleaner: When did you bring it in?
Jerry: What's the difference? Look at it! Do you see the size of this shirt?!

Dry Cleaner: You got a receipt?
Jerry: I can't find the receipt.

Dry Cleaner: You should get the receipt.
Jerry: Look, forget about the receipt, all right? Even if I had the receipt - look at it! It's a hand puppet. What am I going to do with this?!

Dry Cleaner: Yes, but how do I know we did the shirt?
Jerry: What do you think, this is a little scam I have? I take this tiny shirt all over the city conning dry cleaners out of money?! In fact, forget the money. I don't even want the money. Just once, I would like to hear a dry cleaner admit that something was their fault. That's what I want. I want an admission of guilt.

Dry Cleaner: Maybe you asked for it to be washed?
Jerry: No...Dry cleaned.

Dry Cleaner: Let me explain to you something. Okay? With certain types of fabrics, different chemicals can react, causing...
Jerry: (Interruping) You shrunk it! You know you shrunk it! Just tell me that you shrunk it!

Dry Cleaner: I shrunk it.

See, that wasn't hard, was it? Wrong. There is a line that is just short of taking full, clear responsibility, and many, many people, for whatever reason, can't get across that line. They try to minimize, defer, explain - do everything but admit that they were wrong. Meanwhile the angst only grows for those who desperately need to hear the eight words: "I'm sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me."

I have been watching with peculiar interest the board of our local school district (where my son goes to school). The school board has been caught in a land boondoggle, purchasing property at too high a price, in an area not zoned for a school, with money that the district did not, and does not, have. It is a perfect storm of mistakes: a runaway superintendent, an incompetent appraiser, turncoat politicians, a lagging economy, a contract that was not carefully reviewed (in fact, the contract for the land cannot even be located). Now the board will be asking the community to pass a bail-out bond to help pay for the unusable land, and to keep the State from taking over the district in the next year to keep it from insolvency. (Cue Southwest Airlines' ad, "Want to get away?"). I personally think that the community might actually be inclined to bail the school district out, but I doubt it will happen unless the school board is willing to own their mistakes and take responsibility. A little bit of ownership for the mistakes would be like a paper towel on a spill. Instead, the board spread the mess around by sending out a four paragraph "message" to the community, and I quote:

"All school boards have an assortment of governance responsibilities and often face considerable challenges carrying them out..."
"(the purchase was) made after considerable evaluation..."
"the board was convinced at that time the acquisition of that property was in the best interest of the district..."
"we are committed to focusing on the future..."
"we are confident that together we will develop a plan..."

Do you notice something missing here? Yup. The closest the board got to saying, "We blew it" was use of the word "regrettable" (which still cloaks them in the role of victims, instead of protagonists).

I bring this episode to your attention, not because of the mistakes that were made in purchasing the property. I personally believe that mistakes WILL be made by leaders, and sometimes the mistakes will be quite significant. I bring this episode to your attention because of the lack of ownership for the mistake, which is a second mistake, that now puts salt in the wound. Wouldn't the school board be better served by saying, "Dear Community, We blew it. We meant well, but we kicked the can. We should have read the contract. We should have verified the information. We were the board. We were and are responsible. We didn't handle our responsibilities well and we're sorry that our mistakes have put the community in a bind." I think that might work. But truly one of the hardest things for politicians to do is ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY. The response of the board on this reminds me of Arthur Fonzerelli ("The Fonz") of Happy Days struggling to say he was “w-r-rr....w-rr-rrrr....w-rr-rrr---rrrrong.” The Fonz was cool in so many ways, but his inability to admit wrongdoing was not cool.

I have admired Bill Hybels (founder of Willow Creek Community Church) for years. But my respect went to an all-time high when he recently admitted that their attempts at spiritual formation had largely failed. Listen to this, and learn to be a leader who takes responsibility: "Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for. We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own."

Wow. I know where Seinfeld would like to go to church!

1 comment:

Sound Water Treatment said...

I don't like to tell people that I screwed up either but the ones closest to me, my wife and children can see clearly enough when I need to. Consequently I do say I'm sorry more often than I want to admit. Others can find strength in hearing their peers even leaders acknowledge mistakes or addictions or total failures. Thanks Dave for your honesty and example of intimacy. In-to-me-see.