We all know that effective leaders admit and learn from their mistakes, but admitting that we were wrong can be hard to do well. And if we’re taking ownership for an error related to work that was done under our leadership it can be even trickier.
On a website devoted to The Perfect Apology, the authors say that in a business setting, a good apology “will help solidify relationships with existing customers, acquire new ones, enhance customer confidence and improve overall loyalty to the brand.”
As an example, they analyze an apology given by JetBlue Airline after a particularly difficult week that included multiple delays and missed connections. The authors say it includes the key elements of an effective apology:
- It starts by expressing appropriate humility and remorse.
- It gives a detailed account of what happened and takes responsibility. In this case, the delays were caused by a severe winter storm, but the company didn’t try to minimize the effects of what happened.
- It offers restitution and proposes a Consumer Bill of Rights to remedy the situation in the future.
- It ends by saying that the airline values customer relationships and hopes to do business again in the future.
We could say that the experiences of an airline CEO don’t relate to us in higher education. We don’t sell tickets or compete for customer flight miles. We don’t seek customer brand loyalty (or do we?). But we all know that higher education isn’t perfect. People and organizations make mistakes, and leaders have to take responsibility. Is there anything we can learn from this example?
Dee Anne Bonebright
Part of acting with integrity is to comply with the laws, policies, and procedures that impact our work. While this might not seem as exciting as being innovative or as important as being strategic, it is an an essential leadership competency.
As a parent of a female athlete and someone who spent my career in higher education, I’ve been stunned by the stories about Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar. Clearly he illustrated extreme unethical and illegal behavior. But how did it go on for so long?
Here’s part of Aly Raisman’s testimony: “If over these many years, just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided. I and so many others would never, ever have met you.”
Michigan State had policies and procedures to prevent what happened. But somehow the culture of the school, and of organized sports, did not make them easy to implement. Many of his victims were not famous athletes – they were college students. A New York Times article said that one of them remembered it as being “common knowledge; everybody knew that if you went to him you got weird treatment.”
I’ve heard of supervisors that “everybody knew” harassed employees, or managers that “everybody knew” discriminated against certain groups of people. Sometimes that behavior had gone on for years. Higher education is clearly not unique in this, but how does it happen that people aren’t always held accountable for following the laws and policies that ought to be governing their professional work?
I keep thinking back to Raisman’s statement. How can we be that one adult who did something?
Dee Anne Bonebright
You have gathered input, asked questions, mulled options and finally reached a tough decision and then you hear “How did you reach that decision!” And it is an accusation not a question. In fact it actually feels like a challenge to your integrity as a leader. Luckily a close examination will usually reveal not a lack of integrity but a lack of transparency on the decision-making process you used.
Writer John Cutler highlights this point in his article “Decision Making Transparency.” People on your team want to know how you are making the decision and how they will be involved. It is crucial that you communicate this information with your team before, during and after decisions. Cutler recommends that you ask yourself the following:
- Who makes the actual decision?
- Who will be impacted by the decision?
- What criteria are being used to make the decision? Factors, budget, timing, scope, requirements, regulations, etc.?
- What are we attempting to maximize, minimize, improve, reduce, develop, or achieve?
- How will we involve others in the improvement of decision-making?
Answering these questions and sharing the information will help ensure that your decision-making actions are transparent and demonstrate integrity.
Last week when I was preparing to meet with one of our university leaders, I noticed that her email to me had an interesting tagline. At the end of her email signature and institution’s mission, she had added a postscript. It read:
PS: “Please forward this email to those I may have inadvertently missed. Anyone who needs this information is welcome to being in the loop. Let me know who I missed so I can add them to future correspondence. Radical transparency is a fundamental practice I choose to follow.”
Wow! After reading it, I began to think about how her message not only communicated that she was committed to transparency, but was a declaration of her values AND a demonstration of integrity. Many leaders say they practice transparency in their communications, but few go to lengths of demonstrating it in this way.
At the end of our meeting, I asked her about the postscript in her email and remarked on its uniqueness. She affirmed that this practice has built trust among her teams. (I have to add that it is just one of the many things she does to create a productive work environment on her campus.)
As we were talking, she remarked that anyone who doesn’t think that their emails are completely public is fooling themselves. Everything we communicate online is open to sharing and can circle the globe quickly.
The phrase radical transparency makes me smile, in that it communicates transparency to the extreme. Simply defined, radical transparency includes actions and approaches that radically increase the openness of organizational process and information.
In that one postscript, this leader clearly demonstrates her integrity with every email message. What practices do you employ that demonstrate integrity?
The second in our Minnesota State leadership competencies is Acts with Integrity. As I was reviewing it and the behaviors that describe it, I was struck by the fact that it’s included under “Leader of Self.” Does that mean that a leader can’t really act with integrity without demonstrating self-awareness and self-control? I think it does.
Some of these behaviors, such as abiding by relevant laws, rules and regulations, might not appear linked to self-awareness. But as I read about some of the public leadership failures we’ve had recently, they seem at least partly driven by a failure to ask the question: “This act seems like it will benefit me, but does it align with my core values?”
This month we’ll look at this competency and how it applies to us as leaders within higher ed.
- Demonstrates honesty
- Abides by all relevant laws, rules and regulations
- Encourages others to do the same
- Gives credit where credit is due
- Delivers what is promised
- Admits and learns from mistakes
- Corrects mistakes to utmost ability
Dee Anne Bonebright