Harvard Business Online

Three Words Leaders Should Learn


Posted on The Change Master: May 7, 2009 12:14 PM

There are three little words that extraordinary leaders know how to say, and I'm not thinking of "I love you" (but those are pretty good). The magic words are "I was wrong." Husbands and wives know that saying those words to each other can be even more endearing than endearments. When leaders say them to their teams in a timely fashion, they build confidence and can move on to a better path.

The simple sentence "I was wrong" is the hardest for leaders to utter and the most necessary for them to learn.

Alan Greenspan came close to saying it in the heat of the global financial meltdown, but not quite. When the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, revered as the guru of global growth, testified before Congress last fall, he said he was "in a state of shocked disbelief"—but not that his actions had been wrong. He conceded that "Yes, I have found a flaw. I don't know how significant or permanent it is." When asked directly by California's Henry Waxman, "Were you wrong?" he hedged by replying, "Partially."

Former President Bill Clinton is slightly better at saying it. He told a recent United Nations World Food Day audience that "we all blew it including me" by neglecting aid for farmers in development strategies. I've heard him say he was wrong for failing to intervene in the Rwanda genocide. But he was impeached for failing to say under oath, "I did it, and I was wrong" about his private behavior.

If a leader cannot admit being wrong in a timely fashion, he or she can never correct mistakes, change direction, and restore success. The consequences get worse the longer denial prevails. Hiding bad news from stockholders and creditors while offering rosy forecasts has brought down many a CEO. Samsung's 20-year chairman stepped down after being indicted on tax evasion charges, but this was not his first mistake. He faced corruption scandals and a bribery charge in the 1990s. Had he said then "I was wrong" and chosen a more ethical course, perhaps he could have preserved his job and his legacy.

Some people find it so hard to admit a mistake that they dig themselves into a deeper hole even when given an easy chance to correct themselves. Eason Jordan's inability to back down from an extreme position taken at a World Economic Forum session in Davos cost him his job. On a panel in a packed room (I was there), Jordan, then head of CNN International's news operations, accused the American military of targeting journalists in Iraq, causing injuries and deaths. Shock waves rippled through the audience of leaders. The moderator gave him several opportunities to modify his stance and soften his words, but Jordan ignored them. He was forced to resign from CNN the next day.

The arrogance of success is well-known. Powerful people start to believe that they are above the rules, that what applies to ordinary people does not apply to them. That's how officials get into trouble in the first place, using their power to suppress criticism. They never have to say "I was wrong," because everyone conspires to hide mistakes.

Fortunately, there are better leaders who do not view themselves as infallible. Jim Kilts, former Gillette CEO, characterized himself as "often wrong, never uncertain." Decisive yes, but also ready to be swayed by new information to change direction. Maurice Levy, CEO of Publicis Groupe, said "I was wrong" to himself, his board, and later, the public—and meant it. Publicis is now the world's fourth largest advertising and communications group, but in the early 1990s it was just a French-based European network looking for global reach. Levy formed an alliance with True North in the U.S that unraveled in acrimony after a few years. Saying "I was wrong" about the alliance turned Levy from bitter victim to active acquirer. He won several big prizes, including buying Saatchi and Saatchi, Leo Burnett, and Digitas.

Of course, we do not want leaders who are forced to say "I was wrong" too often. We count on leaders to exercise good judgment. The best leaders manage the risk that they could be wrong by surrounding themselves with people are smarter than they are, at least in some things. They create conversations, weigh facts, listen to arguments, and then make better-informed and less self-serving decisions.

Perhaps apology training will become a growth business. Actually, I hope not. But I do hope that smart leaders will be more alert to problems, and if mistakes are made, they can utter the three magic words and take corrective action.

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