As a kid, I routinely proclaimed my innocence when “stuff’ happened . It is possible that sometimes “I didn't do it” wasn’t exactly accurate; it's also possible that had I come clean right away (or even before the “stuff” was discovered), I would have spent much less time being well-grounded...
When I was in that “innocent” moment, I always felt it was possible that the broken fish tank (or whatever) might not actually be discovered, or that I could find a way to not make it my fault.
As in childhood, “stuff” also happens in business; but the consequences are worse than a wet carpet (the fish were saved, though I got zero credit for that). Sadly, the “adult” leaders are often as righteous as I was, and as convinced that they can somehow get away with it.
A teacher I admire recently posted a link on Facebook to a blog by Gary Rubinstein entitled: Why I did TFA, and why you shouldn’t. As a former TFAer, my friend was understandably upset about this. I too am an admirer of TFA (Teach for America), and this article was an eye-opener, it exposed perspectives I hadn’t considered.
Money quote: "Rather than be honest about both their successes and their failures, they deny any failures, and charge forward with an agenda that has not worked and will never work. Their ‘proof’ consists of a few high-performing charters. These charters are unwilling to release the data that proves that they succeed by booting the ‘worst’ kids — the ones that bring down their test scores."
A few months ago, the Susan G. Komen Foundation was accused of politicizing their grant-making (which they denied despite information to the contrary); they were further accused of singling out Planned Parenthood, which the head of Komen, Nancy Brinker also denied. When asked if their reputation was at stake, Brinker responded: “...all I can tell you is that the responses we’re getting are very, very favorable." They reversed their decision 24 hours later, apologized for causing any distress, while reiterating their righteousness.
Like TFA (23 years), Komen has been around a long time (30 years), both are very effective, and widely regarded as resounding successes. They had to overcome huge obstacles; persevere through difficult times; and finally gain traction and slowly win people over. Now, rather than begging to get an invite to the dance, they are the main attraction.
To get to success, it is often necessary to transcend negativity; it is always necessary to believe in yourself, your vision, and your strategy, even (or especially) when everyone else doubts you. This thick skin is critical to progress in the early days, and if you are fortunate enough to "win," it is sadly also very effective at helping you forget who and what you were when you started, and think only of how great you are now.
Humans are designed to forget, minimize, or even romanticize tough times -- I can't imagine a mother wishing to give birth to second child if this weren't true; it is certainly how adults forget the angst and difficulty and complexity of puberty and teenagehood, when they vowed never to be the jerks their parents were.
In life, as we learn and grow, we hopefully never lose sight of the principles and morals that we were taught as children -- these neural pathways were formed when young, and ideally persist and guide us throughout our lives. But in business (and politics), there is no such memory, especially when it comes to leadership. Principles or morals are routinely forsaken in the name of expediency. What's worse, it is the very leaders who were closest to those principles that are most likely to ignore them.
But how is the ideal that caused shivers down your spine, brought a tear to your eye, and drove you to do just one more thing before going to sleep so easily replaced??
I think it happens when you hire two- and three-lettered people - JDs, PRs, MBAs. The "2-3s" are designed to manage situations by respectively telling you scary stories about what will go wrong if you admit things; telling you lies about how great you are, and assuring you about how easy it is to fool the public; and by "helping" you measure success with generally-irrelevant metrics. The 2-3s also help you forget the big picture -- the very reasons your organization exists in the first place.
The result? You've been spun.
Spin is a powerful thing - it is intended to "shape" truth into convenience: "the fish needed a new home anyway, and let's face it the floor also needed a wash." The problem happens when you start believing your own spin. Back to TFA: Education is a difficult, difficult challenge -- we spend $100s of billions on it and are still failing. Rather than admit that some of their efforts have also failed, and help others learn from their mistakes, they're forsaking their original dream -- we can make education better -- for their new mandate -- TFA must succeed at all costs. This is true for Komen, for many large corporations, and certainly in politics.
As Gary put it, “TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed. The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’ ”
When you start believing that your 2-3s can help you hide or spin failures and acts of stupidity, you’re in trouble. When you start believing that these things didn’t really happen, you’re an idiot. And when you start thinking you can now do no wrong, you’re sunk, for you are now without integrity.
The standard to which we hold ourselves is our greatest asset. When we are honest about our successes and failures, we show our humanity. When we are open to external scrutiny, we are worthy of other people’s trust.