Being a leader means saying what you think. You can't stay silent, withhold your opinion, and wait to see what everyone else is thinking because that would make you a follower, and completely ineffective. But there is one time when the best leaders always hold their tongues: When they have something bad to say about someone. About a year ago, I attended a workshop with the wonderful memoirist and essayist Susan Shapiro. She gave us a great piece of writing advice that was equally great leadership advice: Trash yourself more than anyone else. It can be counter-intuitive. As a leader, you know you need to maintain the respect and trust of your employees, customers, and investors. And when something goes wrong, it's human nature to blame something or someone other than ourselves. "The supplier didn't deliver the parts we needed on time." "The salesperson failed to make quota." "The quality control person missed that error." Even if someone else truly is to blame for a failure, saying so only makes you look ineffectual-it's the leadership equivalent of "the dog ate my homework." Don't do it. Here's what to do instead:
Apologizing never makes you look weak. It makes you look strong, even if you're apologizing for something that isn't your fault, and especially if you're apologizing for something that is your fault. If something has gone wrong, your first move is to admit that it has and your second move is to apologize whether or not the error was actually yours. Your customers, partners, employees, or investors were negatively affected so they deserve an apology. You're the leader, so that apology should come from you.
2. Ask questions before you criticize.
As leader, it's sometimes your job to tell employees or partners that they've fallen short of the mark. You should never shrink from this duty but before you lay out criticism for something that went awry make sure you understand exactly what went wrong and why. Rather than "You failed to complete this task on deadline and that is unacceptable," try: "You failed to complete this task on deadline and that created a big problem. Is there a reason it was difficult? Is there something we should have done to support you better?" Of course, you may get an answer that you can't comply with, such as cutting an employee's workload or increasing the budget. If so, explain why that is and talk through how the employee might complete the task on schedule next time around.
3. Never say anything negative about someone that you haven't already said to that person.
If an employee turned in work that was late or unsatisfactory and that caused an issue, that employee needs to hear that from you before he or she hears it from someone else. The same holds true for customers, by the way. If a customer has made an unreasonable request or provided incomplete information or done anything else that makes it impossible to give great service, that customer needs to hear that too, ideally directly from you.
4. When things go wrong, accept responsibility-because you are responsible.
Many years ago, I worked at a company that usually did great work. But under the pressures of staff changes and tight deadlines, our quality began to slip. After a month of this, the company owner called us together for a talk. He talked through all the work that was below par, and how we might make it better. He concluded the meeting by saying, "I'm in charge here, so I take responsibility for this." At the time, in my early 20s, I was perplexed by that comment. It wasn't his work that had fallen off, it was ours-he'd just spent an hour telling us how. With the perspective of time, I see what a wise move that ones. Because he trashed himself more than us, we started thinking of how to fix the problems, instead of feeling criticized and blamed. He made us feel inspired to do better. And that's the best thing a leader can do.