Excuses: Why Great Leaders Never Make Them

'He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.' ~ Benjamin FranklinClick To Tweet

There are always excuses available to you. Always.

If you fly regularly, you’ve probably noticed that there are lots of things that the flight crew – both those inside the cockpit and outside it – do consistently… the same way… every time. There are checklists and shiny big signs and flags on things reminding people what to do.

Part of the reason for this is that analysis of plane crashes consistently shows that it isn’t just one thing going wrong that causes an accident. There are contingencies and safety mechanisms that readily deal with the one small thing that goes wrong. Those checklists and procedures are designed to pick up as many of them as possible…

Lots of small things need to go wrong for a modern commercial flight to crash. Lots. If you want to look at an example, check this report on the Air France Flight 4590 (Concorde) crash.

And just like complex machinery, organisations have many organic, dynamic parts in them, any of which can go wrong on any given day. And all of which have minds (and attitudes) of their own.

So if you’re looking for an excuse, I guarantee you can find one. Probably more than one.

He did this, and she did that. They forgot to do this. So-and-so didn’t show up for work that day…

It’s seductively simple to blame somebody else. And sometimes, it’s even justified!

Exploring three different perspectives, here’s why you mustn’t.

Perspective 1: The Person Being Blamed

Imagine yourself, for a minute, in the shoes of the person you blamed. Regardless of whether or not the blame is justified by the facts, it makes you feel pretty lousy, right?

When someone you work with blames you for something, it destroys trust. You aren’t going to feel inclined to go out of your way for that person – quite the opposite. You’ll avoid working with them, you might bad mouth them to other colleagues. You certainly aren’t going to think of them as a great leader.

If it happens often enough, your engagement drops, and it might even begin to feel like you are being bullied.

Now I know what you’re thinking… surely a great employee will take it on the chin and lift their game? Isn’t this exactly the sort of feedback they need to shape their career?

No – blaming somebody for something going wrong at work isn’t the same as providing constructive/corrective feedback in a one-to-one setting. By definition, blaming someone means you’ve told others. This is counterproductive, and there are much more effective ways to provide feedback, if that is your intent.


Perspective 2: A Person Witnessing the Blaming

If you’ve blamed someone for the error, you’ve told someone else, possibly in the presence of others as well. So what do these ‘third-parties’ infer from their experience?

If it is a peer, or sub-ordinate, it’s not that different to the perspective of the person being blamed. Suddenly a whole lot of people don’t want to work with you or for you. They know that you’re capable of throwing them under the bus if you feel it serves your needs… that you don’t take responsibility for the results of your team.

They interpret your actions as being self-interested… driven by self-protection or self-aggrandisement. It doesn’t matter much which of these it is – neither are associated with exceptional leadership.

If it is only your boss you told? Well, if she’s a decent leader, she will either see it immediately for what it is – making excuses – or she’ll take it at face value, but have slightly less respect for you moving forward… possibly in a way that she can’t quite put her finger on.

If she’s a poor leader, she’ll probably commiserate, and jump on the excuses bandwagon with you… you’ll briefly feel better, but it won’t last. This is the sort of boss that will throw you under the bus if she sees the opportunity, and you know it… so tread carefully.

Perspective 3: Your Perspective – Laying the Blame

This is where it gets really interesting.

Even if you lack self-insight completely (which I’m sure you don’t) the feeling of significance you get from making someone else your excuse is likely to be short-lived at best. Because deep down, you know it wasn’t the right thing to do.

Furthermore, you deny yourself an exceedingly valuable opportunity.

The opportunity to learn something new.

When something goes wrong, regardless of whose fault it was, there is always something else you could have done differently to avoid the situation unfolding as it did. Always.

Maybe it was providing greater support and mentorship to someone you delegated a task to. Maybe it was prioritising your time and attention differently. Maybe it was escalating your concerns earlier. Maybe it was in selecting someone for the task who wasn’t yet ready. Maybe (though this is rare) it was not doing it yourself…

Outcomes are always the result of numerous decisions and actions. Review them. Figure out how the situation could have been averted.

I promise you’ll learn something.

Taking Responsibility: What to do Instead…

So what should you do instead?

Take responsibility… even when you aren’t responsible.

I admit, there is risk here. If you have a lousy boss, they’ll look no further than your acceptance of blame and it will end there.

However, most bosses aren’t this bad.

More importantly, your team members and colleagues will know that they contributed to the mess. They may even believe they were entirely culpable… When you take one on the chin for them, as the manager responsible, they will grow in their trust of you, their engagement will increase, and they will go out of their way to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

If you do need to sit them down to provide some feedback, chances are they will take it more seriously, and be more likely to learn from it.

And you will gain a reputation as being someone people want to work for and with – and who they want to get it right for, because they won’t want to let you down.

For more on this topic, check out Responsibility: It’s Never Someone Else’s Fault (Even If It Is)

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