Do Senior Leaders have the courage to confront and own their shortfalls?

If you want to elevate your team to a new level of ownership, accountability and performance you have to start by taking stock of, and owning your current reality and past.

You have to confront what worked, what didn’t work and what still isn’t working. Sometimes, you even have to take responsibility for things that happened before you arrived.

Why is this important?

Because when you are honest and own your past it is easier to put it behind you. You can then create the space for a powerful new chapter, unlimited by past constraints.

If you focus too much on the things that worked, you can easily get comfortable, complacent and/or arrogant, and that could limit your ability to do new things and improve on what is working.

If you avoid looking at your past, you won’t learn the lessons that it has to offer and you can easily repeat the same mistakes in the future.

Obviously, it’s easier for leaders to take responsibility for the good things. In fact, many leaders don’t like to review the things that haven’t worked, especially if they feel issues and shortfalls are associated with them in some way.

In fact, many leaders don’t like to review the things that haven’t worked, especially if they feel issues and shortfalls are associated with them in some way.

Take, for example, one leader who was promoted to the highest position in their global function after being the number two for many years. Being a global support function inside a sales organization, this function struggled for many years with its credibility and reputation. Its customers didn’t feel the function was providing the value and impact they wanted. As a result team members felt criticized, under-valued and demotivated. In fact, many managers and employees in the function also felt that their senior management was too caught up in silo and political games, instead of providing the team with a powerful direction, priorities, support and air coverage to do a good job.

When the new leader took the job, everyone was hoping for change. But, first people wanted an opportunity to express their frustrations about the past, including feedback about the new leader. They wanted to be heard. They wanted the new leader to listen and acknowledge what hadn’t worked.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen because the leader was unwilling to hear criticism about himself or past performance or the dynamic of the function, which he felt was being associated with him.

Another very senior executive in a different global company, also head of a global function, avoided and prohibited any discussion about past failures with her team. Team members wanted desperately to bring up, acknowledge and address the political issues that had held this function back from being world class for so long. However, their boss wouldn’t hear of it. When team members attempted to bring up past issues or criticism, in meetings, in order to move beyond them, she would shut down the conversation.

When I asked her why she was doing that she said: “Discussing our past ailments and failures only brings our past back and this prevents us from moving forward.”

I see the same types of mindset and dynamics in so many teams. In fact, I have seen several cases leaders avoided entering a much-needed change initiative just because of their fear of confronting their shortfalls.

So, why is it so hard for leaders to deal with the past?

Most leaders either don’t know how to confront past issues in a productive way. Like our first example, many leaders simply take the bad stuff too personally.

And, like our second leader, many leaders feel that if they don’t bring bad issues up it makes them go away. This is not true! In fact, when you are honest and own your past, it’s easier to put it behind you. Then you can create a space for a powerful new chapter, unlimited by past constraints.

If you are defensive about the past or avoid it or try to build a new future on top of it, the undercurrent will keep dragging you down. And, even if you are able to produce great results, it will usually come with people collateral damage.

Of course, I also have examples of senior leaders who are genuinely open and interested in confronting and taking ownership of past issues and shortfalls, including their own. In my experience, these leaders have generated much greater results with much higher motivation and sense of fulfillment in their teams.

You would think that the most senior leaders would be the most mature and self-confident, therefore they would be less threatened by criticism and more open and prepared to hear it. But, unfortunately experience has shown me that it’s often not the case. Senior leaders are often less open to embrace and admit mistakes, or take responsibility for things that they did or didn’t do that caused others to suffer.

Do you have the courage to confront and own past shortfalls?