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Blame is not a Leadership Trait
By Mark Hannum
This is the sixth in a series of posts on Systems Thinking by Linkage’s own Mark Hannum. He admits that the series will probably reveal too much about who he is, and why he does what he does. However, his insights on systems thinking have been gleaned from decades of research and real-world experience…and you might just find his thoughts useful in ways you wouldn’t expect. Click here to start reading at the beginning of the series.—Ed.
Several years ago, I was contracted to do a project for the Chief Sales Officer of a very large organization. Arriving in his office one morning, the activity level was more frenzied and intense than I had previously experienced, and it didn’t feel good, even to me. A proposal to the single largest client of the organization was going out that day at 5:00 p.m. and the 300 plus page document was being scoured, edited, formatted, and vetted. Needless to say, my meeting was postponed until the next morning.
As I sat waiting the following day, I struck up a conversation with the Assistant VP of Marketing and called attention to the prior day’s madness. Turns out that the proposal had been in the works for six weeks, but the Chief Sales Officer had procrastinated and not written his section until the day before. When he was finally done, his four direct reports pointed out inconsistencies in the writing with the rest of the proposal. Edits ensued and the new version was proofread again. More inconsistencies were found. A second “new” version was printed and proofread. Still more inconsistencies and problems were discovered and fixed.
By 2:00 p.m., the Chief Marketing Officer had second thoughts about releasing certain key information and all of it was pulled. New inconsistencies were found and eliminated. At 4:55 p.m., the proposal was emailed to the client. However, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the organization had just switched its email system from Outlook to Gmail and the mailing list that was picked up by Gmail left off three key individuals—two on the company side and one on the client side—and this mistake was not discovered for another three days.
When I returned three weeks later, I learned that the meeting with the client had not gone well. There were lots of indirect questions by the client trying to determine key information that they had asked for, but did not receive in the proposal. Of course, the Chief Sales Officer felt that he successfully defended these questions. When the smoke cleared and it became clear that the account had been lost to a competitor, the Chief Marketing Officer fired the administrative assistant for incorrectly emailing the proposal, and fired the Assistant VP of Marketing for poor performance. All of this, I was told, occurred in highly excited dialogue—yelling and screaming.
“Blame” is defined as the “finding of fault/placing of responsibility.” However, it is also defined as “the discharge of fear and anger.” When you look at this scenario from a systems thinking perspective, it is relatively easy to see the dynamics and the complications. However, I can guarantee that the Chief Marketing Officer was not thinking systematically. Instead, he was weighing his future with the company and discharging his fears and anger on others. Systems thinkers will almost always look at themselves first. They will work hard to not self-deceive.
It is healthy to hold people accountable and responsible for their actions. But this was not accountability. This was blame. Losing the account had nothing to do with the email going out incorrectly and losing that account had nothing to do with the Assistant VP’s performance either. The deliberate and tacit withholding of information from the client by the Chief Marketing Officer had everything to do with losing the account. However, that part of the “losing” was never examined by anyone. Believe it or not, the Chief Marketing Officer actually received kudos from the company’s President for his “brilliant” effort in trying to retain the client and he was even congratulated for taking swift action with his non-performers.
I don’t know about you, but with all of the leadership competency models that I’ve seen and written, the leadership behavior of “discharges pain and anger on others” has never been part of any model. The simple fact is that blame has no place in leadership. Neither does self-deception. When you start to see yourself as the hero of the story and others as lazy, inconsiderate, lousy, incompetent, lacking motivation, lacking commitment, misaligned, not being accountable, causing drama, and trouble-making, you better start to take a hard look at yourself.
There usually are reasons things fail, but they can be abstract and invisible—especially when the cause of the failure is due to our own behavior. Some of the more visible reasons for failure tend to be badly written policies, misplaced incentives, lack of clarity, missing information that creates misunderstandings, misinformation because of a lack of understanding, and conflict that goes unresolved or isn’t properly managed.
So, the next time you want to blame someone else, take a hard look at yourself. You might actually figure out how you caused or contributed to the problem.
Have you ever been the brunt of blame?
More about Mark
Mark Hannum is a Principal Consultant at Linkage. He has over twenty years of experience in organization and leadership development, systems thinking, coaching, competency modeling, and executive team building and alignment. Mark’s skilled leadership and innovation has resulted in the successful implementation of many organizational design projects with client mergers and acquisitions. He is also a frequent featured speaker at many training and education events.
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