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Make, embrace and admit mistakes

It makes for exceptional leadership - and you'll really stand out these days
Tim Cook and Donald Trump
Apple CEO Tim Cook and U.S. President Donald Trump at a recent White House meeting. Reuters

By Todd Humber

We need leaders.

And that’s a collective “we” that runs the gamut — from office workers to the assembly line, from the oil patch to the tech sector. It includes students, the military and yes, good ‘ol ordinary citizens.

We need inspiring leaders. Intelligent leaders. Strategic and competent leaders.

There are a few must-have traits. Top of the list is empathy, but it’s followed closely by a willingness to make, embrace and admit mistakes.

Yet when we look to the obvious seats of power in Canada and the United States — the PMO and the Oval Office — we aren’t finding a lot of inspiration.

Justin Trudeau, embroiled in the SNC-Lavalin controversy, has expressed regret over the way it was handled — but can’t quite bring himself to mouth the words “I’m sorry.”

Donald Trump is taking it to much higher levels. Daniel Dale, Washington bureau chief for the Toronto Star, wrote an excellent article about the U.S. president’s refusal to admit almost any error.

Last week, Trump gave Apple CEO Tim Cook a new moniker — “Tim Apple” — at a White House event. Trump was, rightly, mocked for it. But there was no mea culpa in the works, and zero ability for him to laugh at himself. Instead, he doubled down and Tweeted: “I quickly referred to Tim + Apple as Tim/Apple as an easy way to save time & words. The Fake News was disparagingly all over this, & it became yet another bad Trump story!”

Which, well, points for trying?

Dale has done a fantastic job chronicling false things said Trump since he took office — the counter was at 4,583 and rising as of this afternoon. Dale also wrote that “at least 20 times in office, the president has responded to a trivial error by amending the erroneous word in a way that does not acknowledge any error at all.”

That detachment from reality inspires nobody. The Daily Beast recently ran a fascinating account of the resignation of Jim Mattis as U.S. defense secretary. Admiral James Stavridis, a former NATO commander, said he pins the blame for key Trump departures on “the president’s chronic lack of discipline, indifference towards preparation and expert opinion, impulsive decision-making even on matters of great consequence, and instinctively dismissive attitude towards allies,” according to the Daily Beast.

It is what you see in any organization when leadership fails. Departures of key staff. A lack of trust and respect for management. An increase in absenteeism and short-term disability leave, coupled with a corresponding and inevitable drop in productivity for the workers willing to tough it out.

In the absence of effective leadership, even the most loyal and engaged employees will start dusting off their resumés and eventually check out.

So yes, leadership matters. A lot. In every industry, in every sector, in every situation.

Trudeau found this out when Jane Philpott quit her cabinet post as president of the treasury board.

“I must abide by my core values, my ethical responsibilities and constitutional obligations,” she said in a statement. “There can be a cost to acting on one’s principles, but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them.”

That came quickly on the heels of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s explosive testimony about SNC-Lavalin and her own resignation from cabinet.

Trudeau’s headaches could likely have been avoided with a bit of upfront honesty and an apology. It’s mysterious why he dug his heels in when he has been eager and willing to fess up to other missteps. It may cost him an election.

Trump’s problems run much deeper — his thesaurus has been scrubbed clean of any reasonable facsimile of the word sorry.

Admitting mistakes. Apologizing. Owning your behaviour. These are good leadership traits. Be willing to ask tough questions of yourself, and to answer them honestly. Step in front of your teams, and in the process of providing an explanation you’ll also be giving them inspiration.

Remember this simple HR mantra, which I’ll trademark right now — talent matters, talent wins. If teams are left to wither on the vine, you are left with a stark choice — invest in coaching to improve their behaviour or brand them as nothing more than an expensive roadblock that needs replacing.

Harsh? Sure. But that’s leadership — and we sure do need it. 

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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