Why Leaders Should Always Take The Blame (And Never The Credit)

gets creditI love leadership lessons that are backed by facts and history.

Because they become what I call “immutables” – lessons that must be heeded to get to greatness.

And there’s one immutable that has influenced me, and how I practice leadership, more than any other lesson I have ever received- and after 40 years of studying leadership, that’s saying something.

What’s more, my actions in concert with this immutable resulted in a big personal and professional payoff – business success and a leadership experience that was hugely satisfying and fulfilling.

You can find and read more about this lesson, and its backing by facts and history, in one of my all-time favorite business books, Good to Great by Jim Collins.

Through a ton of research he identified the most critical traits of companies that were able to sustain above-average growth rates for long periods of time.

He called it “Level 5” leadership, where the executives displayed a blend of “personal humility and professional will“.

What’s so earth shatteringly wonderful about this?

Collins noted that in every instance, the leaders of the great companies demonstrated these two traits.

In EVERY instance, without exception.

They channeled their ambition not on themselves, but onto their team.

They were “We-centric”, not “Me-centric”.

They acted with quiet and calm determination.

They had an unwavering resolve to do whatever that had to be done to produce the best long-term results, no matter how difficult.

And here is the really, really important part:

They credited others (or luck) when things went well, and took the blame when they didn’t.

Think about that one for a long minute.  They always took the blame. They never took the credit.

It wasn’t about them.

Imagine yourself as a leader exhibiting those traits – it’s not easy, is it? Selflessness is not something we learn about in college, or even in the first few years of our professional careers.  It’s all too easy to let our often fragile egos get in the way.

But I can tell you that the minute you commit to this mind-set, this perspective, this letting go…….

Your leadership leaps up to a totally different and productive place. People know you have their back. People know that good work will be recognized and rewarded.  People know that their honest and well intentioned mistakes won’t be met with anger and belittlement.

On top of that, your managers and supervisors will see what you’re doing and follow along, creating a ripple effect that extends all the way to your customer-facing staff, and then, to the customers themselves.

This shouldn’t be taken as a “soft” practice, or to some extreme of a spectrum –  I’m not talking about running into the staff break room and taking responsibility for Joey or Sally spilling hot coffee on someone.

It just means that if you set bars as a leader like “we’re going to take care of the customer and our staff“, or “we’re going to produce great profits at high margins“, or “we’re going to take risks and innovate to stay competitive“, or even “we’re going to have the highest standards of service in the world”, then when things go off the rails if something goes wrong with that service, or the innovation bombs, or the profit isn’t there, it is YOU that steps up and takes responsibility.

Looking for an example of how well (or not) that this works?  Just watch and listen closely when you have a negative experience at a retail store. When the store manager steps in and unequivocally takes responsibility for the problem, doesn’t blame any staff, and commits to resolve it come what may, you know you are in a “Level 5 situation” that goes all the way to the top.

(Unfortunately, all too often we get the opposite experience, like I did recently at a well known large boutique ladies clothing store chain where the manager basically told me I was “on my own” with a shipping problem on a birthday present for my wife, a problem that they had created through an ordering error made by one of their staff.  No Level 5 in that company!)

Heed the lessons of history and my own personal experience, take this immutable into your heart and soul, and practice Level 5 leadership, every hour of every day.

Take the blame and never the credit, with quiet and calm determination.

And lead well!

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