When things go wrong, human tendency is to make excuses; to find things and people to blame. Such times are a test of leadership character. No leader goes through her tenure without mistakes. But how she responds to them makes all the difference.
Over the past few weeks, we have had a few crises that threw up some important leadership lessons. They challenged the leaders who were in the middle of those crises. Some came up short in their responses, others set examples; but we can learn from all of them how leaders must get better.
Let’s look at some of those incidents that were widely reported.
The ball tampering saga
Here’s a background for the rare person who may have missed the news — during the recently-concluded Australia-South Africa cricket series, the Australian team was accused of tampering with the ball. Three Australian cricketers were in the spotlight — James Bancroft, the player who actually did the ball tampering, David Warner, Vice-Captain who was also accused of being the brains behind the conspiracy, and Steve Smith, the Australian captain.
Much has been written about it, but let’s see what leadership insights we can glean from it.
Several debates took place around the incident and one excuse that was constantly thrown up was, ‘Everybody has been doing it for ages’. That’s a dangerous excuse a leader can make and he would do well to avoid it. Everybody doing something does not make it right.
Now, Bancroft was the one who actually tampered with the ball, and yet, Steve Smith and David Warner received the stiffer punishments. Why? Because as leaders, they were accountable — even more than the person who has committed the offence.
Though early indications are that Warner had planned the tampering, Steve Smith was also forced to pay the price. This was because even though he knew about it, he did nothing. Very often, leadership failures are because of a leader’s inaction. The excuse ‘I didn’t personally do it’ does not cut it. When he turns a blind eye to an offence, it is as grave as he committing it himself. Steve initially tried to spread the mess around, claiming it was a ‘leadership group’ that knew about it. But he eventually chose the right response when he said: ‘As captain of the Australian cricket team, I take full responsibility. I made a serious error in judgement. It was a failure of leadership, my leadership’.
That’s the right way for a leader to own up when things go wrong.
CBSE leak of exam papers
When the crisis of leaked exam papers hit, the CBSE was found wanting in an effective leadership response. The offices were shut even as thousands of students and parents anxiously waited to find out details and check the consequences of the leak. There was no emergency team set up to deal with the crisis, to handle questions from the press and the public. There was no clear channel of communication that would allow no room for gossip and rumours.
The excuse given was that it was a holiday and a long weekend. But an out-of-the ordinary crisis warrants an out-of-the-ordinary response. It’s the leaders who should marshal all resources and get the team to go above and beyond the normal routine. Instead, the CBSE Chairperson was late to the front, shied away from answering questions and chose to avoid the crisis rather than confront it.
The entire episode was marked by an unwillingness by the leadership to take responsibility, to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, and to acknowledge its agonising impact on thousands of students. Instead, excuses and confusing statements made the rounds and only added to the anxiety of all those involved.
In a crisis, a leader must first be visible. However unpleasant the situation, she must be there to face the music and be willing to acknowledge that things have gone seriously wrong. There is no point hiding behind long-winded bureaucratic statements or trivialising the impact of the crisis. A leader should step up and be front and centre. It may be hard to take the complaints and sometimes the abuse, but it will eventually build trust when people realise, “At least they’re not running away or playing the blame game”.
Another trap that leaders can fall into is avoiding giving a response until they have a ready- to-roll resolution. But those are two different things — people want a response first; they will wait for a resolution. What people can’t stand is silence or worse, a lack of accountability — especially from the leader.
So, a leader’s first the response should be ‘We’re here’; then, she should acknowledge: ‘We’re sorry, we made a mistake — no excuses — and we’re committed to making it right’. As tempers cool, the leader can then demonstrate, through action, the specific steps being taken to resolve the problem.
The Asansol Riots
Riots broke out in Asansol (West Bengal) as the Ram Navami celebrations took a communal turn. But in the middle of all the violence, one leadership lesson stood out: the wisdom and courage of the Imam of Asansol, Mohammed Imdadullah, who lost his 16-year-old son in a mob lynching incident.
At the funeral prayer, a large crowd of around 10,000, gathered. The mood was angry and the crowd seemed eager for revenge. In the middle of this potentially explosive situation, the Imam asked for the microphone. His words rang out as he said: “If you love me, then don’t indulge in any violence and let peace prevail. I don’t want any more lives to be lost. If you resort to any violence, then I will leave the mosque and the city.” This is a perfect example of decisive and compassionate leadership in action. Through his leadership the Imam saved lives.
Contrast that with the words of a former IT industry leader, who, as a member of the Rajasthan Government’s digital advisory council, was deflecting criticism on the attacks on minorities there: ‘How many lynching incident(s) happened in Rajasthan? Maybe 5, 10 or 15. Look at the population, which is seven crore’. This cardinal leadership error is of the ‘big denominator that justifies the small numerator’.
In business, this is used to justify quality issues: ‘Just a few products that went wrong, but consider the total quantity we have delivered’; or compliance misses: ‘We got one wrong out of so many thousands’. Leaders can use Six Sigma as a tool, but they shouldn’t be using this statistical approach to lead, because they don’t lead numbers. They lead people.
After all, a 0.05 per cent ‘killing rate’ sounds fine statistically until you realise that for the people killed and their families, it was a 100 per cent tragedy, crisis and trauma. It’s fine to say we had only 0.05 per cent dissatisfied customers, but for those customers, it was a 100 per cent bad experience. For that former IT industry leader, the question could be, ‘What if those 5, 10 or 15 had included your son, your daughter, your brother, your sister, your friend? Would the statistical insignificance still matter?’
The Imam lost his whole world with the death of his young son, but he still had the courage of conviction and the love and generosity of heart to make the right leadership decision.
We need more like him.