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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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