Taking responsibility for failures is very hard – especially when you don’t feel responsible or when you feel you were equally hurt as all the people impacted by the situation or the issue. But this is the job description of a leader. He/she leads (even though the path is not clear) and must “face the music” when things go wrong and similarly he/she gets to bask in the glory when things go right. How can you take responsibility for failure?
- Find a safe place to vent
Bottling up all the stress of the situation is not all in is not healthy. It can impact your health (heart disease, blood pressure among other things), cause depression or even lead to inappropriate behaviours like uncontrollable rage and high risk activities. This can damage current and potential relationships. So do not bottle it in, find a safe place to vent where you are “off the record”. A clinical psychologist Christina G. Hibbert, recommends the following: to deal with stress TEARS – “Talking, Exercising, Artistic expression, Recording or writing experiences, and Sobbing”
- Acknowledge you are human.
You are only human and we all make judgement calls. Even with the best of technology and brains things can go wrong. I was in Nagoya shortly after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the 14 metre tsunami wave and the Fukushima Nuclear Accident were all very low probability events and the chances of them all happening at the same time were close to zero. But close to zero probability is not zero probability, a renowned academic said with grief in voice as he addressed us. It was a complex megadisaster. In a large organisation – feuding employees, a culture of distrust, a hostile takeover, wrong advice, a product crisis, currency fluctuations, country crises are other examples. In life things don’t always have to be so large in scale – for an entrepreneur – a bounced check, one late payment, a feuding partner, a lost consignment, an angry customer, a vicious media attack or even a personal situation are enough to derail a business. So first, you must acknowledge that you were human, you could not possibly control for everything. Second, acknowledge that you were hurt by what happened and third, more importantly also acknowledge that you are hurt by how the situation hurt others.
- Reach out to the people impacted
When people are hurt they lash out differently, some feel betrayed, others hurt in privacy and some want revenge. While you cannot control how others feel, you need at this point to take on the difficult role of the leader and acknowledge the fact that there was something that went out of your control. It helps when they know that you care about what happened and how they were impacted.Empathy and compassion are never wasted. Maybe they also just want to vent and they would feel better if they could vent to you. Wouldn’t you prefer that than if they went to the media, other potential investors or your key stakeholders?. Alfred Brendel says, “The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.” This means you need to allocate time and I would suggest take a partner with you to show them that it is the company reaching out. Distance the situation from a person even if you are a figurehead for the company. You need to keep your composure so preferably you have already vented enough to manage this. No matter how you feel, you need to get up, dress up and show yourself -projecting an image like you will succeed and never give up. Don’t confuse listening with emotional decisions by the way. Don’t make promises you can’t keep or that will overwhelm you. Obviously the larger is your impact continuum, the more work that needs to be done.
- Be objective when dealing with the situation
You need to be able to look at the situation objectively as an outsider to figure the way forwards. Emotions cloud judgement. There are three steps to being objective 1. Be neutral 2. Use a third person perspective and 3. Remove emotions. If necessary hand over the stewardship of the company to a trusted advisory team. An interpersonal issue is perhaps one of the most difficult issues at an emotional level as it may mean losing a relationship. However, if it is handled objectively perhaps you can salvage the relationship. A good guide is the reframing context by Bolman & Deal. They say there are four types of decision problems – Human Resource, Structural, Symbolic or Political and they do give a large number of insights on how to handle each. You need to let people know what you have planned. People look up to leaders because when things seem hopeless the leader seems to have it in control. For more reading here are some excellent article by Forbes.
- Take this as a learning experience in the journey of life.
Setbacks or if you have to use the word “failure” is a fact of life. Embrace it and don’t hide it. People will respect you more for acknowledging the fact even if you worry they are laughing behind your back. The truth is you have more courage to embrace the fact than most other people in the world. The experience will teach you many things – what are your strengths, who your friends are and your support systems and more importantly what you need to learn from life. Don’t let the situation defeat you rather leverage this to move forwards in life. If you are an entrepreneur or a leader or an intrapreneur or just a person finding yourself – it is an emotional experience especially if you care about what you do. Read about others – you are not alone. The best way to learn – is from others. You don’t have to repeat all the mistakes. I was fortunate in my life to document how the Tata group handled the 26/11 Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel terrorist attack. This maybe an interesting read for some of you. Though this paper looks at brand burn – it as an exemplary story of people management and corporate values. So if you never have a code of practice, or values to guide your organization – now maybe the time. We are all have bravery inside of us. Courage is not loud; it is the quiet voice inside of us that despite the fear makes us go out of our comfort zone to do the right thing. It make us face reality and acknowledge we could have done better as a leader. It is the strength we draw on to continue the difficult path rather than give us and take the easy way out. These journeys take time and for many people healing is not days, it is years. Get help and heal yourself – you can’t help or lead others effectively if you aren’t able to depend on yourself the most. By the way the picture below is one of my favourites as many times I do feel I am the only one walking in a storm but we all have to lead…our children, our companies or our own destiny.