Some are born leaders, and some have leadership thrust upon ’em. Leadership often just happens. You make a decision or take an action (or inaction) in response to a situation or context. You may have thought it through in advance – how will I react in X situation or if Y happens – but there’s not always luxury for that contemplation. When there is, though, it’s a missed opportunity not to use it.

I was in a meeting recently and a project had failed. The discussion was interesting for a number of reasons. My organization is risk-averse in a way that only a non-profit or government organization can afford to be. It was unusual for their to be a recognition that the failure was not terminal. There was a healthy perspective that the goal remained, and that the failure would be a learning experience.

How risk-averse are we? I recently had to get a boilerplate terms of service for an $85 one-time, one-year subscription to web hosting for a brochureware site approved by 3 C-level executives plus go through a procurement process.

The operational message was positive, then. But failure means someone failed. And that’s where the opportunity was missed.

The Blame Game

I’ve commented to the people I report to in the past that you can’t expect people to take risks unless there are rewards for doing so. Our culture is not that unusual, based on my experience. Successful risk taking doesn’t equate to recognition or promotion or support for more risk taking. Failed risks result in penalties, often termination.

The first hurdle for the leader, then, is to manage the inevitable blame game. You’ve already displayed your leadership by giving your people the opportunity to fail. You’ve taken steps to ensure they have a healthy context in which to work.

Then failure happens. When you run the shop, this is easier to handle. When I worked in Ohio, I reported to a governance board. Operations decisions stopped with me. In that environment, it is easier to identify the obstacles to success and continue to move forward.

When your library exists within a larger organization, there are more challenges depending on who is at those higher tiers. At the American Bar Association, I was two levels down from the COO. When a project exploded in cost overruns and the CFO and CIO were out the door, I suddenly had to take on IT until a CIO was hired.

The project wasn’t the only problem the department faced. In one case, the COO wanted to understand who was to blame. The reality was that (a) there was no value to be gained from assigning blame to an individual or group and (b) poorly documented accountability make blame both arbitrary and diffuse.

If you’re going to try to affix blame – which really should be, if you’re going to hold people accountable – you should have already created a clear structure for that to occur. Trust. Clarity of roles. Adequate resources. Good communication.

I deflected the COO so that we could focus on fixing the particular issue at hand.

Broad Shoulders

One thing a leader is prepared to do is shoulder the blame. In a properly accountable environment, the leader is accountable for the actions of her team. So the accountability runs up and down the hierarchy.

This is where I think an opportunity was missed. The failed project was unquestionably a multi-million dollar failure. It was not quite a bet-the-farm failure but it was both actually and perceptually a significant failure.

Ironically, the project could have been an off-the-shelf solution if there had been process evaluation and redesign at the start. Instead, a lot of people put a lot of work and years into something that was very complex.

When the senior manager explained to the group about the project’s demise, the IT director was at the table too. Everyone knew it was his project. In essence, the perceived failure was his.

It would have been great for him to have been part of the explanation. If he had helped to deliver the message for what had happened, it might have changed the feeling of the message his boss delivered. She might even have had him give the entire message, allowing him both to own the project’s failure and it’s rebirth.

Instead, it was a bit like hearing a parent comment on a child’s bad behavior while the child is appearing otherwise engaged in something else. It wasn’t awkward so much as it left a gap for a negative perception. It undercut the perception of his competence.

A better approach would have been to consider whether he should give the entirety of the message. Explain the failure, explain the regrouping, explain the continued focus on the goal. Own the message that failure is okay – I’m still here – and we’re still moving forward. The senior manager could then reinforce both the IT director’s message as well as show support for their person and for failure as an option.

If the senior manager had taken this approach, it would have done a couple of internal things:

  • shown trust in the IT director TO the IT director
  • shown a willingness for the IT director to have an uncomfortable experience for professional growth
  • clarified that, during that discomfort, the senior manager had his back

One aspect of leadership is building the trust so that people will follow. That needs to be done both between you and your team and in front of the rest of the organization (or governance board or what have you).

I don’t know if that’s what happened behind the scenes. But my perception of the experience was that this was as much about the senior manager showing decisiveness as it was creating a culture that allows for risk taking.

We don’t always have the time to plan how we want to lead. When you do have an opportunity, take a moment to think about who you’re leading. How will your actions impact their ability to get their job done, their ability to succeed. Those insignificant seeming moments can impact an organizational perception of you, and your staff, for years.