Taking the bullet for your team: Leadership lessons from the pink corner

Last Thursday I was not a happy woman. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. My child was sick, I had just spent three long hours at the hospital seeking treatment. The house help was sick too and told me so only when I got back home from the hospital! Did I mention too that I had had one of those days that start at 7:00am and end at 7:00pm? Yeah, twelve hours of blissful work.

I love my work, don’t get me wrong but at that time at 11:00pm I was wondering about this love. These smartphones ensure we carry work home in the form of email and at that time when I should have switched it off and slept, I made the mistake of checking for updates. There they were, the three emails that made me forget I was tired. One from a donor, no make that an infuriated donor threatening to soon be an ex donor. Another from my boss, colourful and very explicit in his displeasure because of the donor’s email. The last a short, forlorn note from the staff who was the cause of these emails explaining what happened. I felt the anger start somewhere at my toes and come up through the ranks.

We all know that anger at 11:30pm is the kind that wounds, and is subject of many court cases so I did what I had to do. I drank a long calming cup of tea. I then apologised to the donor on our behalf, wrote to my boss the synopsis of the problem. I assured my boss that as this was my responsibility,I was handling it and would provide an update. I allowed the seemingly repentant staff member to at least have a good night. I wish I could say I didnt have murderous thoughts.. I did, I just chose to delay my reaction till I was calmer. After all tomorrow was another day. Then I slept.

Friday was no better, those were the band aid measures now the action begun. In the staff meeting I discovered that yes, they had erred a long time ago and didn’t want to confess and had they spoken up sooner our donor would be happier. In the phone call with the donor, I discovered what rankled was not the loss of opportunity, but the lack of clear communication.. yes English words written or spoken. My supervisor was left for another time when all was sorted. So why all this? What did I learn from this that can help you as a leader and hopefully a follower?

A) Unconfessed sin always comes out to the fore. As a team member, when you make a mistake own up and bring it to the supervisor’s attention as soon as possible. It may give you a tongue lashing but it saves everyone the unpleasant and more significant consequences later. Surprisingly, most supervisors (those worthy of the name) do not take adverse action for a mistake committed, confessed and corrected before they find out from other quarters.

B) You can never over communicate when you have found yourself in a sticky situation. Accept your error. Apologise by phone call or personally if possible. Follow up with an email for those who like formal communications. Identify ways to make amends and share it. Implement the action and share it. Follow through on your commitment and find out how it has worked out. This should be done with knowledge of your supervisor to avoid unpleasant surprises.

C) When something wrong is done by your team, it is done by you when it comes to the fore. A good leader must take the bullet, avoid mentioning their names in the conversation and avoid apportioning blame. It happened under your watch even if you were not aware. Do not let your team feel that they are exposed to whiplash from above if they make genuine mistakes or deliberate ones. Taking the responsibility and dealing privately with your team makes them know they can count on you and reinforces your authority over them in a way that earns you positive goodwill with them. And we all know we need that to get any work done with joy.

D) Ensure you all learn the lessons. After taking a bullet, sometimes we forget to complete the circle and come back and evaluate what happened and what lessons we take from it. When all is said and done, angry emails written, apologies offered and forgiveness embraced. The team must take steps to ensure that it is not repeated. If the behaviour deserved a warning issue it. If it deserved dismissal, do it with an explanation or offer an option of resignation for valued employees. What I have seen, when leaders take the bullet and later act even those who are most affected, usually respond with dignity and appreciation.

In this instance, I received a touching email from the staff after they saw the backlash and realised I had stood in the gap. Short summary; I am glad I work for you and I will give my best in any way starting with correcting the error. Now I know I can sleep easy anytime the team have an assignment. They will have my back. And that is worth taking a bullet for.

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