"CEOs can't wait to read Sunny Bindra's articles every week."

A great leader takes the blame when things go wrong

Apr 30, 2012 Business Daily, Leadership

“Pep Guardiola has defended Lionel Messi after his penalty miss as good as cost Barcelona a place in the Champions League final.
Messi has enjoyed an extraordinary run of form in the past four seasons, scoring 63 goals in all competitions this season alone. However, he failed to find the net in either leg of Barcelona’s semi-final against Chelsea – and crashed his second-half penalty off the bar during their 3-2 aggregate defeat.
…Guardiola said: “We have got this far thanks to this kid. More than ever I want to thank him for what he’s done.
“My admiration for him knows no limits. He is an example for all of us, his competitiveness inspires us. He’s daring, he’s brave and he plays fantastically well in all kinds of different conditions.
“I don’t doubt he will have a few bad hours now but sometimes you smile and sometimes you are sad and it’s our turn to be sad.”

The Guardian (25 April 2011)

Many years ago, I was a very junior management consultant working on my first ever assignment in London: a very high-profile privatization project. I was part of a team of hundreds, and it was the single biggest assignment in the history of my employer at the time. The privatization was also a highly politicized event, attracting much opposition and media attention.

So what did I do? I carelessly left a bag containing highly confidential documents entrusted to me lying in a car park.

After realizing my error in a heart-stopping moment later, I rushed back to the car park. To no avail. The bag was gone.

I had been in the job just a month or so, and had already messed it up. I went into the office of the senior partner of the consulting division to explain what had happened, and to hand in my resignation.

After hearing me out patiently, this is what she said: “It doesn’t matter. It was a human error. I’ve done the same in my time. Never mind, I will take responsibility and handle the matter.”

I looked at her dumbstruck. As we were speaking, the phone rang. A taxi-driver had found the bag and was calling to return it. The situation was saved.

I have never forgotten that act of leadership. Rosemary Radcliffe, if ever you read this article, I still salute you and talk about you to leaders everywhere.

I was reminded of Ms Radcliffe when I read Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola’s comments on his star player, Lionel Messi, following their crushing Champions League defeat to Chelsea last week.

A lesser coach may have directed some blame towards Messi, who missed several chances over the two legs and even wasted a penalty that would probably have decided the outcome. Not Guardiola.

As shown in the excerpt, the coach was protective of his player and effusive in his praise of the latter’s achievements to date. He would not countenance a blame game.

Contrast that with leaders you (and I) know, who look for a scapegoat the minute a crisis occurs, and readily offer up a blood sacrifice to appease the baying crowd. These are the leaders who protect their personal image at all costs; who treat employees like expendable resources; who will never have the expansiveness of spirit to do something for others.

Leadership is, and always has been, about character. It is about getting the best out of others, after all. You don’t do that by protecting yourself first and throwing your team out to the dogs. Nor do you do it by setting the example of self-absorption. Ms Radcliffe and Mr Guardiola know something we should all understand: true character is revealed during a moment of truth, when the leader has something significant to lose.

Do remember that when you face your next crisis.

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  • wamoronjia

    Today’s story reminds me of a ‘Haloween’ experience from way back. In January 2000, I was a very junior operations clerk at an oil company. One of my responsibilities was to ensure contracted oil trucks were clean, sealed the compartments before they left, crew were in uniform, tyres were in good condition, etc.
    But one afternoon, one truck delivered fuel oil to a ‘too-big-to -disappoint’ client, but when the crew began unloading the cargo to the client’s tanks, the truck’s pipes began leaking, pouring a lot of liquid.
    Needless to say, that incident reached the ‘sonkos’ in Hq, who ‘devolved’ it to my supervisor, who then dismissed I and my colleague. No warning letter, no listening to our side of the story (ensuring pipes were leak proof wasn’t in our job descriptions).
    As your article says, both of us had to be sacrificed to appease the baying crowd at HQ. But on a positive note, the company paid me a full month’s salary and 2 months’ salary in lieu of notice.

  • Hey sunny,

    The reality of the matter is that many a people in management will not protect their staffers in some ordeals like Pep above but as mentioned will shift their blame elsewhere. Inherently, before leadership some will look at their bills and resources generating jobs other than leadership before making such decisions and we cant blame them. If our society would just maintain several Pep Guardiola like and one Michuki like leaders, the effectual status would be enormously felt

  • Farai

    Having messed up before i know how bad/guilty one can feel and just that feeling alone is more painful than being fired could ever be. often there is the temptation to try to I think the fact that you came clean also played a part in how Ms Radcliffe acted. Sadly there are very few leaders out there any more. not only is it about not accepting the blame or defending your team some bosses will lie blatantly even when they are wrong and put the blame on someone else.

  • this is absolutely true. i remember the other day the same incident occurred to me when thieves took my bag without my knowledge in a minibus.inside the bag were the recorder and other important doc of my boss since we were working together on a developing story about community development projects . my boss response was the similar to yours too, it is human error ,it happens don’t mind . i felt relieved and until now she is still my role model as the best leader i have ever had.she is called esquivel justine once again i say thanks justine

    • See how that simple act of generosity makes the leader stay in your mind years later?

  • wamoronjia

    Vipi Sunny
    Finally, belatedly, I bought ‘The Peculiar Kenyan’ on Wednesday. And true to Nairobi’s peculiar weather, it began raining immediately I left the bookshop (TBC-Sarit).
    Anyway, I liked the quizzes because I could particularly relate to the Tumetoroka Kenya Kabisa sect. True, I wouldn’t hesitate to drop my beer for JKIA should I get an ‘awesome’ job overseas.
    However, I loved the article on mimicry and I nodded to its relevance when a TV ad mentioned ‘non state actors’.
    I look forward to your next work that you mentioned on Jeff Koinange’s bench.

  • mbatia njoroge

    Responsibity is key and your article gives hope to guys like who have a couple of mistakes to pick up the pieces and move on

  • njui irungu

    I have been following Pep for a while now.He was a Barcelona player before leaving & later coming back to coach Barca B team.When he was promoted to coach Barca A team,Barcelona executives said that given his zeal & passion for Barcelona,he would probably work for free.He guided his team to 13 trophies in 4 seasons.In his tenure,Messi won 3 consecutive Ballon D’ors & his team mates(Xavi & Iniesta) were runners-up.For other teams,such glory leads to breaks due to egos.But not under Pep’s watch who has tailored these principles into his team:hardwork,humbleness & ambition.In his resignation,he said he did not feel the same passion needed to guide Barcelona to greater heights. And in the expected characteristic of great organisations,Barcelona hired from the inside when replacing him:Tito Vilanova who was Pep’s assistant.Possibly,Tito was being gloomed.Its also interesting to note that almost all of Barcelona’s players are homegrown through an effective youth team system and so is their way of playing.They are originals at what they do

    • Chris

      This is now the club to mimic. A leader whose inspiring traits trickle down to the players. Those who claim their glory days are over should know quality unlike clothes never run out of fashion.

  • U have taught me great lesson,and so leadership should start at home.