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Be a Leader Who Can Admit Mistakes

June 4, 2015
Borderless Leadership

This might sound obvious, but if you want to build a more engaged workforce you need to, well, engage. That means, whether you are a CEO or a frontline manager, you need to be working hard to connect, face-to-face, with your people. That can mean anything from walking around and making pit stops in offices and cubicles to holding town hall discussions with your teams and staying to answer questions afterward. But most leaders simply can’t make time to sit down with every person in the company, in every office around the world, on a regular basis. It’s mathematically impossible. So what should leaders do instead?

In my experience as CEO of Red Hat, I’ve learned to keep the lines of communication open and find ways to connect with associates when I can, either in person when the opportunity presents itself, or virtually via email and other electronic correspondence. Being accessible and approachable is critical to effective leadership.

For example, recently I was involved in a roundtable of CIOs from many of our customer companies where I was talking about leadership lessons (like this one) from my book, The Open Organization. As it happened, there were a few Red Hatters in the audience as well. After the meeting wrapped up, a couple of these associates came right up to me to talk about some of the themes in the book that resonated with them. They also recommended several other books they thought I would appreciate. I love that this happened because it shows that members of the organization whom I have never met before are comfortable approaching me and having candid discussions with me about leadership. How many CEOs with close to 8,000 associates at their company can say the same?

As powerful as accessibility is—and without it engagement is impossible—I’ve learned that nothing builds engagement more than being accountable to the people in your organization. You simply have to have the confidence to own your mistakes and admit when you’re wrong.

Being a leader doesn’t mean that you’re always right or that you won’t err. What being a leader does mean is airing the reasons for why you did something and then making yourself accountable for the results—even if those you’re accountable to don’t directly work for you.

That’s how you truly sow the seeds of engagement. Think about it: who would you rather trust—the person who denies anything is amiss or the person who admits their error and then follows up with a plan to correct it? Better yet, what if that same person who admits they made a mistake reaches out to their team for ideas on how to make things right? I’ve found that leaders who show their vulnerability, and admit that they are human, foster greater engagement among their associates.

I speak from experience. Early on in my tenure as CEO of Red Hat, we acquired a company whose underlying technology wasn’t entirely open source. But rewriting the code and making it open source was going to mean months of work, something I didn’t think we could afford. So, after much debate and back-and-forth, I made the call to go to market with the product as is. Big mistake. It soon became clear that both our associates and our customers disliked using the product. There was only one thing to do at that point: rewrite the code. Only now, instead of being a few months behind schedule, we would be off by more than a year. Ouch.

Of course, there was quite a bit of anger and frustration among Red Hatters about the extended delay. But I owned it. I put myself out to the company and my board of directors by admitting I was wrong and that we were going to do our best to address the mistake.

I realized that our associates deserved to hear the story of why we made the decision as much as the board did. When you don’t make the time to explain why you made your decision, people will often assume the worst all on their own: that you’re detached, dumb, or don’t care. But when I made the time to explain the rationale—that we had in fact put a lot of thought into it—people finally understood.

Many Red Hatters told me how much they appreciated that I admitted my mistake. They also appreciated that I explained how I came to make the decision in the first place. That earned me their trust. If you want to have engaged employees, in other words, you need to explain why decisions were made. That’s how you build engagement—which also makes you a stronger leader.

In short, being accessible, answering questions, admitting mistakes, and saying you’re sorry aren’t liabilities. They are exactly the tools you can use to build your credibility and authority to lead.

By Jim Whitehurst

Source: Harvard Business Review

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