You Aren’t a Perfect Leader. But Your People Still Expect It.

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If you’ve ever held a leadership position, you’ve probably already figured this out: you are held to a higher standard. You are expected to be more. More authentic, more compassionate and most importantly, more ethical than the average working Joe or Jane in your office. Your daily actions are intensely scrutinized. Author S. Chris Edmonds, author of the book The Culture Engine, and Good Comes First (with co-author Mark Babbitt) jokingly tells his coaching clients, “Now that you’re a leader, you’ll never be able to run a yellow light in this town again.”

There is No Such Thing as a Perfect Leader

I agree with Chris on this point. Taking on a leadership role is a huge responsibility and the scrutiny is intense. Is it fair? No. But it’s the responsibility of leadership. If you’re to lead well, learning to be a positive role model is essential if you are to have a thriving, healthy culture for your department. (Or, for your business unit or organization, if you have a wider scope of responsibility.)

Here’s the rub: there is no such thing as a perfect leader. Being “more” may seem like an impossibly tall order. But before you dismiss this as a pie-in-the-sky dream, take heart. There is a way forward . . .and it does not require perfection on your part. Whew. That’s a relief, right?

Two Things to Help You Navigate Your Leadership Screw-Ups

Because all leaders are human, and humans sometimes make mistakes, I offer you these two tips to help you navigate your leadership screw-ups — as it relates to interpersonal relationships. (AKA the “people equation.”)

Tip #1. When you mess up, you must apologize. Chris suggests saying something like, “I’m better than that. It won’t happen again.” Here are an additional seven ways to apologize.

And this is very, very important:

Tip #2. Be sure your goofs-to-doing-it-right ratio is on target. You cannot screw up all the time. If you do, you become a Serial Apologizer and you will lose credibility. Nobody will believe the sincerity of your apologies. Plus, if you use the apology Chris suggests (“It won’t happen again”), you are also a liar.

How Often Should a Leader Apologize?

So what is the “correct” ratio of leaders issuing apologies? This is my “people equation formula” based on years of working with leaders: be sure you are doing it right a lot more often than you are doing wrong.

How much is “a lot”? For you numbers-oriented people, let’s break it down into something measurable.

Let’s say that you are in alignment with your values 95% of the time. I like nice, round numbers, so let’s suppose that during the course of a month, you have the opportunity to demonstrate your department’s stated values 100 times. That shouldn’t be too hard to do. There are roughly 20 work days in a month, so that’s five times each day that you demonstrate a positive example of your department’s values. So, if you’re going for a 95% values alignment, that means you will screw up five times during that month and offer an apology.

How does that sound to you? Does it seem like five apologies is too many? Should you increase your success rate to 98%?

Is my math making you roll your eyes? That’s the interesting thing about the people element of leadership. There are no hard and fast metrics. There is no magic “formula” that will ensure your leadership effectiveness with your team. But there are definitely right ways and wrong ways to build a positive, healthy culture with your team. The first step to achieving this state is to own up to your mistakes and, as Edmonds says, “live” your stated values. “Making mistakes isn’t the problem,” says Chris. “Glossing over them is the problem.” So you can do this. You won’t be perfect (nobody is), but with attention to understanding when you’re out of alignment with the values you espouse, you can set a positive example for your team.

Updated 2021

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