BLUF – Leaders own mistakes of their teams; Managers deflect mistakes out of self-preservation.
If you get the phone call that the wing commander wants to see you right now, I’m fairly confident you just entered a rollercoaster of emotions and thoughts. “Am I late on something? Did someone from my unit get arrested and I don’t know? Did I completely forget a task that’s due today?” All of these questions run rampant through your mind until the start of the meeting. That being said, I invite you to pull up a chair next to the campfire and listen to the tale of “Leaders Never Leave the Front.”
Fast-forwarding through a couple of months of work, this was episode 673 of me talking about a subject that simply wouldn’t go away, yet I was still tied to the subject as it was in my functional lane. This episode starts at 0700 in the morning as I get quickly scheduled to meet with the wing commander at 0900 the same day. Not a big deal, the adjustment defers to the wing commander’s availability, not mine, as it should be.
The meeting starts and the wing commander delivers the “disappointed parent” speech, relaying that I have lost credibility in leadership eyes due to not being able to get my story straight on the subject. The story isn’t straight because there are facts that I do not have available to me, and I’m not going to fill in holes to the story based on assumptions. There are multiple “AFI lawyers” involved in the situation and everyone believes they have a better interpretation on guidance in my functional lane. I also misinterpreted data given to me by my team, of which I own up to the mistake immediately. The “disappointed parent” speech (I use this technique too) is often more effective than yelling/chest poking/knife handing in delivering an overall message of failure to perform your assigned duties. Bottom line, that’s what happened: I failed to lead my team in performing a role we serve as the functional lead for. I did not provide well-informed advice to my leadership, and stood at the brink of losing complete credibility for both my team and myself. I deserved every word of the feedback. I immediately took ownership of the failure and simultaneously took ownership of continuing to improve the team to earn our credibility back. I left the office with my head hung a little low and drove to the work center of teammates in question.
During my drive I took some deep breaths, sipped my coffee, and formulated what I wanted to say to the team. I gathered everyone around, to include the Senior Enlisted, Civilians, and Junior Enlisted down to Airman First Class. I shared what just happened and gave them my immediate orders: “This was my fault, and I still need you to be there for the team. I trust you as subject matter experts, and I made the mistake in misinterpreting the data you provided to me. We have room for improvement. I expect and trust that you will tighten up what needs to be tightened. Stay with me. This is a small blemish on our overall reputation. We didn’t half-ass anything, and that’s what I will continue to ask of you. We can all just do better and we’ll prove it through our actions, not our words.
An alternate version of this story could have been me ripping into the team for feeding me incomplete information or blaming them for misinforming me (you know, because it’s their fault I didn’t understand what they were saying). I could have deflected the entire blame away from me and threw it on my team and vow to leadership this will never happen again. I’m not that kind of leader, and neither should you be.
Instead, my mind was already moving to figure out how to make this right. Not prove someone wrong, but rather keep the confidence of my teammates up so they can continue to meet and conquer the challenges I know we will face. My instinct was to preserve the morale of the team, not my personal career. I already get to claim the positive benefits of working with people smarter than me, so as their leader I must also share in the difficult times and keep us focused on making progress and constantly improving.
There is no convenient ending to this story, because the story is still in progress. We have work to accomplish and we will overcome this dip in performance and normalize back towards our normal record of delivering excellence. However, there is a message to take away: leaders own mistakes of their teams, managers deflect in self-preservation. Which one are you?