The Point: Let’s face the facts in the leadership-arena when it comes to success and failure. Success has many owners, while failure is an orphan. In other words, it’s easy to take ownership as a leader when things are going well. Hit those Sales Goals? Couldn’t have achieved them without my leadership! Identified the innovation offering that will take your company forward for the next 10+ years? Again, my leadership is the organization’s savior! And on and on the ownership + success model goes. But this week at Tip of the Spear Ventures HQ we started to question what happens during times of failure? So in this post we’ll explore the leadership challenge of Ownership… Enjoy!
It’s Been Real, and It’s Been Fun, but It Hasn’t Been Real Fun!
This past week was painful… I parted company with a long-term client. For the last year and a half, a leader and I engaged in executive education and coaching. We initiated the engagement by conducting a behavioral assessment, identifying in the results report-out specific behaviors to be improved, and conducting executive education and coaching sessions. Initially, the leader showed several successes as reflected in goal attainment, stakeholder engagement, and overall personal attitude improvements. But regardless of these successes attained, there was an underlying problem that persisted with this leader, namely taking ownership of failures.
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You see, this leader enjoyed the many rewards that come with success (Recognition, bonus $$$, etc.) However, when it came to failure, it was everyone else’s fault but their own. Success has many owners, while failure is an orphan. So why couldn’t they simply own the results… all of the results?
Extreme Ownership Required?
You can only push-off blame associated with failed events as a leader for so long. After all, the black and white of accounting figures shouldn’t lie. The results speak for themselves, and what we’re talking about here isn’t playing the “blame-game” either. So why are so many leaders hesitant to call themselves out in the failure moment? Perhaps it’s their pride. Perhaps it’s their ego. Perhaps it’s something totally extreme!
I believe Jocko Willink and Leif Rabin state it best in their seminal work on leadership, aptly titled “Extreme Ownership” (St. Martin’s Press © 2017) wherein they say:
“The best-performing SEAL units had leaders who accepted responsibility for everything. Every mistake, every failure or shortfall – those leaders would own it. During the debrief after a training mission, those good SEAL leaders took ownership of failures, sought guidance on how to improve, and figured out a way to overcome challenges on the next iteration. The best leaders checked their egos, accepted blame, sought out constructive criticism, and took detailed notes for improvement. They exhibited Extreme Ownership, and as a result, their SEAL platoons and task units dominated.”Extreme ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs lead and win (First edition.). New York: St. Martin’s Press. Willink, Jocko., and Leif Babin.
So a leader that takes ownership, and in Jocko and Leif’s terminology “Extreme Ownership” we see someone operating at a higher developmental level. These extreme leaders also receive much more as a result of their failure-acceptance position. The leader I mentioned earlier whom I parted company with could never see this, and as a result I pulled the plug on our relationship.
The Ownership Blame Game – It’s My Fault
I want to be extreme in my leadership capabilities and ensure that I consistently operate at a high developmental level. So, with this in mind I have to share that I blame myself for not being able to get the ownership perspective effectively across to my previous client with whom I parted company. I’ve done as Jocko and Leif state in reflecting on successes/failures during the engagement, conducted research regarding more effective methodologies, and I’ve even shared my story with nearly +100 leaders I engaged with this week. In the end, I blame myself and no one else. While I recognize that you can take the leadership “horse” to water, but not be able to make them drink, I also know that I share in the blame for their lack of success. And so, with that in mind felt it was best if we part company.
In this post, we’ve explored the leadership challenge of ownership. If you’re a leader that never experiences failure, you’re probably not leading enough from the front! While we all love success, failure isn’t a matter of “if” but instead a “when” moment. It’s in that “when” moment that a leader’s ability to first and foremost recognize failure and second to accept it so that the challenge at hand can be a learning lesson for future encounters (and they can move on!)