Ownership - A Defining Trait of a Leader

One of the hardest things for me is to admit is when I’m wrong. It’s hard first to admit it to myself. But harder yet is to admit the error to others. It could be my wife or my colleagues. Most challenging of all is owning the error in a public forum. But admitting mistakes is a key defining attribute of a leader. Owning the mistake accomplishes one critical thing. It builds trust, because it reinforces a fundamental characteristic of our humanity. We are all fallible.

I’ve been reading quite a bit about leadership recently, and like many others, I’m fascinated by leadership under great pressure, so I read about Navy SEALS. The stories of heroism under enemy fire inspire me. Extreme Ownership is one of those books. Unlike many others, it stands out because in the first chapter is admission of failure.

The author, Jocko Willink, is fearsome. Watch his TED talk, even for 30 seconds. I promise you’ll be intimidated. In the very first chapter of his book, Willink describes a blue-on-blue event, a NATO term for friendly fire. Willink is overseeing an operation in Ramadi and his team mistakes Americans for the enemy, and shoot them.

At base, Willink stands before his unit and two of his most senior commanding officers to deliver a report on the blue-on-blue. He assumes all the blame. He was the commanding officer. It’s his men, his team, his battle plan, his mistake. I won’t reveal the rest of the story, but it’s worth reading his book.

Earlier this week, one of the most famous behavioral economics famous for writing Thinking Fast and Slow, responded to a critique of his work on social priming. Other researchers haven’t been able to replicate the results. Kahneman’s response:

But, have changed my views about the size of behavioral priming effects – they cannot be as large and as robust as my chapter suggested…The lesson I have learned, however, is that authors who review a field should be wary of using memorable results of underpowered studies as evidence for their claims.

Both of these episodes are inspirations for how to respond to mistakes as a leader of a team and a leader within a space. By owning the mistake, Willink and Kahneman expose their humanity and in so doing, build more trust with honesty.

Published 2017-09-13 in Management 


I am partner at Redpoint. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 20,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.

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