Susan Foster

Authentic Leadership: When We Make a Bad Decision

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43334197 lead by example

A friend of mine (who gave me permission to talk about this) and who is an executive in a well-known organization recently confided that he had made a bad decision. He had let someone go due to what he thought was a money shortage on a contract, before he had all the facts, and then found out it wasn’t necessary after all.

To make it worse, another department in the organization had wanted to hire that person, and he had blocked it.


He thought it would look like he, as a manager, had been wrong about his decision. He also didn’t want his other employees to know he was wrong.

Now he feels a little ashamed. He didn’t base his decision on his values: taking care of his employees even when he must end their employment through no fault of their own.

He forgot, however, that there is a robust informal communication system (read that grapevine!) in every organization and very few “secrets.” After several days, he discovered it was widely known—as well as widely misinterpreted by many on his team. He had lost a lot of respect.

The point is not whether or not we make wrong decisions. We all make wrong decisions occasionally!!

It’s owning up to those decisions–to ourselves, and where appropriate, to our employees.

It’s saying “I made a mistake based on the information I had at the time. I regret it. Here is what I will do now.”

Sometimes we can’t recover. Unfortunately for him, the employee (who had been a great employee) had gone to work elsewhere. He had lost a valuable resource of corporate and project knowledge.

But he still had the opportunity to retain something perhaps more important in the long term: the admiration, respect, and following of his team.

When we tell the truth, and when we own up to a bad decision, we show that we are a better, more compassionate leader because we are asking for our employees’ understanding of our humanity.

Our fallibility.

Our willingness to model the kind of behavior we want from them. And we are showing them we can all do better when we know better.

P.S.  Did his employees think he was weak for admitting his failure?  A few weeks later, one of his best employees came to him and confided she had been ready to leave–she had a great offer and had been upset about the way he handled letting go of the other employee.  She decided rather than be fearful of something like that, she would leave while she could.  After he tried to make things right, and admitted he was wrong, she had turned down the other offer.

This was a leadership opportunity. One that wasn’t easy, but one that from now on will set the tone for his whole team.

When you make a bad decision, how do you handle it? How do you model the behavior you want to see in your team?

2 Comments… add one

rebecca@altaredspaces August 1, 2014, 12:33 am

It’s being willing to eat our own humble pie that allows us to grow as we age.

I have resisted this for a long time…now I find people are so appreciative. My mistakes haven’t been a secret from them. 🙂 And telling them helps us firm up our relationship.

Susan August 1, 2014, 2:37 pm

Rebecca, I so agree!!! This was SO hard for me–being vulnerable enough to say, “I made a mistake, I regret it, and this is what I will do now.” I was surprised to find out that people connected with me much better when I admitted it.

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