President Bartlet’s Admission – A Lesson in Leadership Vulnerability

bartletThere’s another reason. I was wrong. I was. I was just, I was wrong. Come on, we know that. Lots of times we don’t know what right or wrong is, but lots of times we do and come on, this is one. I may not have had sinister intent at the outset, but there were plenty of opportunities for me to make it right. No one in government takes responsibility for anything anymore. We foster, we obfuscate, we rationalize. Everybody does it…..that’s what we say. So we come to occupy a morale safe house where everyone’s to blame and no one’s guilty. I’m to blame. I was wrong.”

Unfortunately, the above speech is fiction, offered by President Josiah Bartlet on “The West Wing.” Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I don’t think that you hear something like this in real life very often. That’s a shame.

The Story

In the story, the President had kept a serious health condition from the America people. The condition was discovered, and the staffers began the long road to foster, obfuscate and rationalize. The Legislative and Judicial branches offered to drop the investigation, in favor of a joint censure of the President. This was as the President was preparing to run for a second term. The President accepted the responsibility, publicly, to the horror of his staff.

The “happily ever after” story went that the poll numbers after the two-week-later State of the Union found significant increase in three areas: Ability to handle the job, Trustworthiness and Strong Leader.
While it was a fairy tale ending, I don’t think it is that far off the mark.

Comparison to Real Life?

How is a leader deemed trustworthy? By being authentic. By being real. By being truthful. Always.

How is a leader’s ability trusted? By demonstrating that the leader can face the biggest challenges with competence, confidence and integrity.

Why don’t more leaders see this? Why don’t more leaders do this?

One hypothesis is that leaders don’t feel that they have permission to be vulnerable or to be wrong.

Seeking Vulnerability

In 1991, Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, published an article titled, “Teaching Smart People to Learn.” In it he explored why some of the smartest people he studied were unable to learn, unwilling to make mistakes, and defensive upon receiving feedback. He said,

“There seems to be a universal human tendency to design one’s actions consistently according to four basic values: 1. To remain in unilateral control; 2. To maximize “winning” and minimize “losing”; 3. To suppress negative feelings; and 4. To be as “rational” as possible – by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether or not they have achieved them.”

He called this the “doom loop” – successful professionals fear failure, and do anything and everything in their power to avoid it, thus losing the valuable opportunity to learn and grow.

Seeking Humility

Edgar Schein, the father of the concept of organizational culture and MIT Professor Emeritus, recently published a new book called “Humble Inquiry.” His premise – status and culture make speaking up to those in positions of power very difficult, so the individual in the position of power must ask. The asking must be done in such a way that it engenders trust, and the only way to do that is to be sincerely interested in what the other person has to say. In order to do that, the person in power has to allow him/herself to appear vulnerable to the lower ranking individual.

Can Vulnerability and Humility Work?

What President Bartlet did in admitting his own blame in the coverup was to allow himself to be vulnerable to his constituents, and in the TV series, his honesty was rewarded.

I’m not really sure that voters today would be that forgiving, but it would be refreshing to give it a try.

But our daily lives are not quite so public and open. Perhaps being willing to be vulnerable, to admit mistakes, and to sincerely ask others for their insight is something we can all afford to do, without too much public scrutiny.

And do pick up Schein’s book.  It’s a quick and easy read, and you will come away changed.

Oh, and yes, I am a little behind on catching up with TV shows.

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