Leaders — every one — will have to eat crow at some point or another. They will have to acknowledge a wrong decision and its consequences.
How to do it is essential, so I recommend watching one of the very last scenes of the Danish political drama, “Borgen: The Power and the Glory.” In this scene, Birgitte Nyborg, the central character in this long, multipart drama, acknowledges her missteps. (For fans of the series, I will avoid spoilers and focus on behaviors universal to leadership communications.)
By way of background, Birgitte (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) is now foreign minister (having once been prime minister) and is looking perhaps for a way back to the top job. The series focuses on drilling for oil in Greenland, a Danish protectorate that is resentful, to say the least, of its colonization. At a party conference, Birgitte must address her party, one she helped to form. And under the parliamentary system, it is a senior member of the ruling coalition.
When Birgitte takes the stage, there is an air of skepticism. She is battling issues of trust; in a way, she is competing with the image of her former self. “Pride,” wrote the Catholic monk Thomas Merton, “makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.” Of course, one must be proud of one’s leadership ability, but when that pride overshadows mistakes, it is time to take stock. And in her speech, Birgitte does just that.
Senior leaders like Birgitte are part of the culture, rooted in the vision and mission. They need to let the audience know of their shared past and, more importantly, their shared values. Leaders also should remind the audience of what they all believe — their vision and mission — and why it is essential.
Sometimes crises occur because leaders fail. Either they plunge into ventures based on false assumptions or fail to keep abreast of trends and then get bushwhacked by something unexpected. Sometimes leaders put people into management positions that are above their capabilities. When there is a failure, leaders must step to the fore and admit the mistake.
Leaders should discuss what specific actions they will take to rectify the situation. They must own the problem and enlist others in helping them find the right solutions.
Shine the light on others
Leaders accomplish little by themselves. Their role is to shepherd the forces to achieve the mission. Leaders should cite the achievements of the team and tell hero stories about how people have achieved results against the odds.
Call to action
A speech that calls for unity must ask something of its audience. The ask can be to continue what they are doing, but often it means going the extra step. Not working harder, but working differently. Leaders should call for people to work together for a common cause and collaboratively share ideas and action steps.
As we see with Birgitte in “Borgen” — as with real-life leaders — crisis reveals character. Those leaders who face adversity head-on are those who are worthy of our followership. Critical to gaining trust is admitting mistakes and making amends. Leaders who do that dispel the air of invincibility in favor of the cloak of vulnerability. Humility is essential.
Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula, said, “We learn from failure, not from success!” That aphorism applies not only to fictional characters but to living, breathing leaders responsible for the organization’s future and the people in it.
John Baldoni, a member of 100 coaches and a leadership keynote presenter, has been recognized as a top 20 leadership expert by Global Gurus and is ranked as a Global 100 Leader and Top 50 Leadership Expert by Inc. The author of 15 books, Baldoni has a leadership resource website.