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Humbled by Sins of Omission


Think about it. Ask any group of leaders if humility is important, and almost every one of them will nod their heads and tell you that the world needs more humble leaders in every field, from business to politics to, well, everywhere. Ask that same group if they would like an opportunity to be humbled, and virtually every one of them will decline.

But I suppose it’s hard to blame them. After all, being humbled is, by definition, always uncomfortable and often painful. No one enjoys seeking out discomfort and pain. And yet there is no getting around the importance of experiencing those difficult moments in life when we are reminded that we are more fallible, broken and human than we’d like to think we are.

One of the best opportunities that I’ve found for being humbled is in my role as a parent. Some people might think I’m referring to the unglamorous work of changing diapers, cleaning up spilled milk and picking up dirty clothes. While those are certainly humbling experiences, I find that the most profound instances of parental humility occur for me when I am disciplining my children. Or more accurately, when I’m criticizing their behavior.

See, when I’m scolding any one of my four sons (it’s not that I’m unwilling to scold my daughters; it’s just that I don’t have any) I often find myself wondering why he acts the way he does. Being an extravert, I usually verbalize my thoughts and say something to the effect of “where did you learn to act like that?” And that’s when, if I’m being honest with myself, I realize that the answer to my semi–rhetorical question is that my son likely learned it from me (it’s not that I’m unwilling to include my wife in this example; it’s just that I’m afraid to).

Of course, I don’t really teach my sons to misbehave. It’s not like I sit down and give them instructions on how to provoke their brothers, break the dining room chairs or talk back to their parents. But I must have done something to give them the idea that it would be okay to do those things, or more likely, that the consequence for doing so wouldn’t be significant.

And it’s in that moment of realization that I have a choice: I can either be humble enough to acknowledge that the first person I need to be addressing if I want to change my son’s behavior is me, or I can go on venting about how ornery he is and watch the orneriness continue.

The same thing happens to me–and to all leaders–at work. On a bad day we often find ourselves complaining about something that people in our organizations are doing. So we turn to our colleagues on the leadership team–or our spouses–and we vent. “The mid–level managers in this company are terrible at giving constructive feedback to their employees.” That’s just one of the common complaints I hear from executives.

Now, if we’re lucky enough to have a colleague on the management team, a consultant, or a spouse who is up front with us, or if we are somehow struck with a blinding ray of humility in that moment, we will come to the realization that the person we’re ultimately complaining about is ourselves. As a consultant, my favorite way to remind leadership teams of this inescapable conclusion is to ask them the question, “how many of the people that you’re complaining about report to someone outside of this room?”

Of course, the answer is ‘none’. Some executives quickly understand the point I’m making and accept the humble lesson that they are ultimately responsible for the behavior of employees. But many push back. “Wait a second,” they argue. “Most of these mid–level managers work two or three levels below us. We can’t micromanage them and force them to give their people feedback.”

After I acknowledge the limited validity of their point, I usually ask “Okay, so how good are you at giving constructive feedback to your direct reports?” If the leaders are humble enough to acknowledge that they’re not particularly good at it themselves (most are not), and that they can’t expect people to do something that they don’t do themselves, then my point has been made.

But many will claim that they give plenty of feedback to their people, and certainly much more than the mid–level managers they’re criticizing. For these most stubborn leaders, the next question I ask, and the most important one yet, is this: “So how diligent and painstaking are you about making your direct reports give their people feedback?”

Before I give them a chance to answer, I like to remind them about the concept of a “sin of omission,” which is the idea that many of the mistakes people make are not a function of what they’re doing wrong, but rather what they’re not doing right. See, in most organizations, the biggest problems arise not because leaders are actively promoting the wrong behavior, but rather because they’re passively doing so by allowing people to get away with this behavior with impunity.

The most common reason that leaders commit sins of omission is simply because they just don’t feel comfortable confronting people about what they are or are not doing. Instead, they look the other way and hope that the problem goes away. And so, when they see that the problem has spread throughout their organization, they really have no one to blame but themselves. This is a moment of great humility. And a moment of truth.

Great leaders, like great parents, will grit their teeth and accept the painful reality that they are almost always the reason that something is awry in their organizations. They’ll accept the pain of being humbled and set themselves on a course of correction. In the end, their egos may be temporarily bruised but the organizations they lead will improve. Poor leaders, on the other hand, will try to protect their egos by continuing to blame others. Ultimately, their organizations will suffer, and their egos will get much bigger bruises, the kind that last a long time.

What all leaders, and for that matter, parents, need to do is seek out opportunities for being humbled, as painful as they may be. It is only within that humility that we will discover the reservoir of improvement and progress that we’re looking for, and that our organizations, our families, and our society so desperately want.