Seth Kahan
Author, consultant

Seth Kahan

Change expert and author who has advised executives in 50-plus organizations, including Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps and NASA. He can be reached at visionaryleadership.com

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Mistakes

Q: One day, the U.S. agriculture secretary forced an official to resign after she was portrayed as treating whites worse than blacks. The next day, Tom Vilsack apologized and offered to rehire Shirley Sherrod, saying he had acted in haste as the result of an out-of-context video. What lessons can be learned here? And when you try to reverse course, are you more likely to look like a flip-flopper, or come out looking good because you admitted a mistake?

First, when you realize you have made a legitimate mistake, you must move to correct it. No question. Acting with integrity should always come first.

Second, if you want to be perceived as wiser for the action rather than a flip-flopper, there are three things you must do:

1. Make sure the positive impact of your correction gets out in circulation as soon as possible. People forgive mistakes faster when positive impact is experienced.

2. Make amendments personally. Meet face-to-face with those you have offended or slighted. Your reputation relies on it.

3. Communicate your move as part of a larger strategy. Be clear about your purpose; the larger result you are after, the bigger picture. Don't assume it is obvious. In this case it is not.

Of course, there is the issue of self-image. The late psychologist Henry C. Link can help. He wrote, "While one person hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior."

Mistakes are part and parcel of leadership and human endeavor. Rather than avoid them, even those that are grand and public, strive for continuous improvement and know that blemishes are part of the process.

By Seth Kahan  |  July 26, 2010; 5:23 PM ET  | Category:  Success and controversy Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The Sherrod affair is symptomatic of how office politics have evolved in the U.S. In that ever-increasingly top-down world, there is an overhelming presumption of guilt against subordinates. Whether it is in something minor, such as the belief that all staff members are secretly trying to shirk their duties, or major things, such as automatically assuming charges against a junior staff member are true, the prevailing mentality is the same: blame the subordinate first; ask questions later. There is no trust, no camraderie and above all no respect in the U.S. office any more. As with pay, the execs get all of the credit but rarely any of the blame. Has any action been taken against the person who wrongly fired Sherrod to begin with? Of course not. Higher-ups are never held to account. This emerging Stalinist corporate system is the result of the massive mergers of corporations as well as the concentration of wealth, but that is a matter for another day.

Posted by: troutcor | July 28, 2010 11:30 PM
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Revbookburn short-sightedly noted: "Hopefully, even more was learned: never make a decision based on "information" was non-credible sources (Fox "News," far-right nuts, etc.). "

Your dislike for the politics of the source or person involved should never get in the way of sound and ethical judgement. Even your political enemies can be right. Listen to them, then judge, then act.

Even better, don't politicize everything. What makes you different from one of the soi-disant "far right nuts"? Your politics? You differ only in polarity, not in magnitude.

When you treat someone contemptuously, you underestimate what they can do in response. Many Congressional staffers are going to be looking for new jobs in January because their bosses were contemptuous of their enemy.

Posted by: GABinOdenton | July 28, 2010 1:41 PM
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Sorry, leadership means consulting with knowledgeable staff before deciding--especially in personnel matters. Having worked close to department secretaries in the federal government and department commissioners in state government, I know the SOP is to consult before you decide. Tom Vilsack went way off base here and demonstrated leadership incompetence. I worry about everything else that he is up to. President Obama made a bad choice in Vilsack's appointment. I'll be watching to see if he survives and for how long. Sadly, the Republicans can rightly argue in the 2012 election that Tom Vilsack is yet one more indicator of Obama Administration incompetence.

Posted by: JackN | July 27, 2010 3:54 AM
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Hopefully, even more was learned: never make a decision based on "information" was non-credible sources (Fox "News," far-right nuts, etc.).

Posted by: revbookburn | July 26, 2010 8:07 PM
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3. Communicate your move as part of a larger strategy. Be clear about your purpose; the larger result you are after, the bigger picture. Don't assume it is obvious. In this case it is not.
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Sorry, I'll have to call a huge fail on this one

Neither the White House nor Tom Vilsack, once they had the whole story, mentioned that Shirley Sherrod was performing a service within a legitimate government interest. "The bigger picture" was clear to her, and her mandate was clear to her, although she may have phrased that in personal terms. It was up to her boss (and The President) to mention the 13th and 14th Amendments and 18 USC 242, to which they are all subject. "I'm from the Government and I'm here to help you" might just be occasionally true.

Posted by: gannon_dick | July 26, 2010 8:06 PM
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