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A Leadership Lesson from Lance Armstrong

Publication: Business 2 Community
Published: January 17, 2013
Author: Barbara Wanless

Accountable Leaders Own Their Mistakes…

It’s perhaps 14 years since questions first arose over Lance Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing substances, and now, here we are on the brink of hearing him come clean for the first time. As Oprah’s fans wait for the broadcast of Armstrong’s supposed confession, I have to admit I’m more interested in the Murmansk weather forecast than this over-late, overdone TV exclusive.

So what if he’s honest now? Or is his audience simply hungry for public penance as he squirms and weeps?
The point is that genuine, dedicated leaders own their mistakes straight away and can begin to put it right just as quickly. Leaders who evade, cover-up and deny undermine everyone’s performance and credibility. How?
1. Someone always knows. No matter how much the transgressor deludes themselves into thinking they got away with something, it’s seldom so. And now that item of knowledge becomes a time bomb with an unknown fuse length.
2. Guilt shows. It leaks out in defensiveness, embarrassment and snowballing lies. Some choose bravado and blanket denials, but these are self-inflated balloons that distract no one.
3. Cheating is infectious. If the leader doesn’t play by the rules, why should anyone else?
However, accountable leaders can transform a mistake into an advantage:
1. Owning up immediately and taking responsibility for mistakes is the adult approach. Leaders who acknowledge their fallibility derive greater loyalty and respect from their employees. They also serve as the model for everyone to follow.
2. Mistakes are opportunities to improve. They signal a breakdown in process, checks and balances, etc., from which a permanent solution can spring.
3. They re-open the discussion on accountability and job roles. With so many organizations and internal departments in flux—accelerated global business demands, workplace demographics, etc.—job descriptions have never been so organic. Often it’s only when something fails that we learn that more clarity is needed.

It may be too late for Armstrong to redeem himself (the doping agencies are  demanding his confession under oath, the Olympic Committee is considering  dropping the sport because of him and his charity, LiveStrong, is reeling), but  his example is a perfect lesson in how a real leader doesn’t handle mistakes.  And now, more than ever, we need true leaders with a functioning moral compass  and realistic self-awareness; our younger workplace generations are demanding it  and the older ones deserve it.

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A Leadership Lesson from Lance Armstrong