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Leading from a place of courage

By now, you’ve most likely read about the failed social media campaign launched by the New York Police Department. From a public relations standpoint, it was a disaster. Media outlets from around the nation featured any number of social media experts riffing on variations of “fire the person responsible for the campaign.”

One social media strategist had a slightly different take, though.

In this NPR interview, Zeynep Tufekci, of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, saw the incident as an opportunity. She agreed that while it was undeniably a botched PR effect, there was another angle to the story, saying:

Instead of firing the person who started this campaign, maybe they [the NYPD] should be thanking [this employee] for showing the problem.

This perspective demonstrates the point at which public relations leaves off and leadership steps in. When projects go horribly wrong in such a public way, there is an opportunity for the organization’s leaders to show people (inside and outside the organization) what happens when mistakes are made. If the organization’s default response is firing the project lead, then organizational risk-taking will invariably plummet, leading to (or reinforcing an already existing) a play-it-safe culture.

The media coverage of this story and its heavy emphasis on terminating someone’s employment misses the larger point: Troubling times in an organization call for courageous leadership. Simply firing one person will not solve larger systemic issues that plague an institution. A leader with fortitude looks beyond the mistake and placing blame, to the bigger picture. This type of leader seeks to understand all factors that led to the disastrous result so that all parties involved can regroup, learn and perhaps even come out stronger in the end.

It may be that project failures under your watch don’t have the scope and furor experienced by the events that started with the NYPD and have now spread across the nation. Yet they both share this in common: mistakes happen and when they do, how will you as a leader deal with them?

Here are questions to ask yourself to determine if you’re leading from a place of courage rather than retribution:

  1. What’s the larger picture here?
  2. How might I have contributed to the failure of this project?
  3. Did I give the proper support and direction prior to this incident?
  4. What role does forgiveness play in this?
  5. Whose interests am I protecting?
  6. How will I repair trust with my key stakeholders?
  7. What can we learn from this?
  8. How do we move forward?

Projects fail. People make mistakes. The true mark of a leader is how he or she handles the fallout from the inevitable errors that occur in organizational life.

Jennifer V. Miller is a is a leadership development consultant whose writing and digital training materials help business professionals better lead themselves and others so they can achieve greater career success. Follow Miller on LinkedIn and visit her blog The People Equation.