The One, Universal, Indispensable Law of Leadership
If you’ve read my introductory story, you’ll know that my writing is focused on helping Cause Organizations develop and thrive with a strong leadership culture. Despite all the hard work, energy, and passions people put behind this important work, they often go through cycle after cycle of growth and collapse. It’s my hope to give activists and organizers the tools they need to break that cycle.
Often, people find themselves in leadership positions in Cause work because they were the most passionate, most committed, or most available. People are always in too-short supply because, let’s face it, this kind of work, may “Change the World™️,” but it doesn’t often pay the bills.
The point is, you probably didn’t get much in the way of training, mentorship, or even a handbook to help you succeed. Frankly, that just sucks.
The study of the practice of leadership fills entire libraries and encompasses entire careers. It’s hard to find a crash course. But, if I could share just one rule with every leadership team in every Cause Organization in the country, it’s this: “Everything is your fault.”
Say it with me: Everything. Is. Your. Fault.
It’s an old chestnut that has been rattling around for over a century at least. Nevertheless, there’s nothing tired or trite about it. It just may be that you’ve never had it presented quite the way I’m going to show you.
It’s not simply “the buck stops here.”
Conventional wisdom says you take the blame for what goes wrong (and pass on the credit for what goes right). That’s exceptionally good advice. Accountability is indeed a critical leadership trait. People respect a leader who “takes it on the chin.” But it’s a lot more than that.
When “everything is your fault,” it changes your internal monologue. When something goes wrong, or just fails to meet expectations, a leader who takes this approach stops to think, “what could I have done differently here?” And that opens up a whole range of new skills.
Turning blame into humility and empathy
Imagine an initiative your organization was championing failed. I mean completely bombed. And the person you put in charge of it is sitting in the middle of the smoking crater of the aftermath. They plainly failed to deliver, and you expect them to take the hit.
If you’re leading a Cause Organization, your people are passionate, true believers. They’re also likely working for free (or close to it). Sure you can point out their shortcomings. But where does that leave you for next time?
“Everything is your fault” forces you to ask a series of uncomfortable questions:
- Did I set this person up for success?
- Did I give them more than they were able to handle?
- Were the expectations clear or reasonable to begin with?
- Did I give them the support and back-up that they needed?
- Did I give them a chance to signal a problem and ask for help?
- Was I paying attention enough to see this coming?
I’m going to ask you to go back and sit with those for a minute.
Can you think of an incident in your organization where something went wrong? Did you go through those questions in your head? If you do it now, what changes? Do you see that person in a new light? Do you see your own upstream failures? Would it have changed how you responded to the incident at the time? Would it change your approach to preventing it the next?
A strong leader is humble. A strong leader has empathy for the people they lead. “Everything is your fault” is a mental model that helps you get into that space, even when the sting of failure is begging your lizard brain to assign blame.
Build leaders by modeling leadership
Internalizing this process is a huge first step. But to make it a part of leadership culture in your organization, you need to model it for your team. When things go wrong, your after-action or lessons learned meetings should begin with you explaining your approach. It should sound like this:
“Looking back, I can see I should have done a few things differently. I knew that John hadn’t done anything like this before, and I could have been a lot more clear about what I wanted and the resources he should use to help him. I also could have set up more regular check-ins and offered to get John some help when I saw him struggling. Next time, let’s make sure we all plan for these factors.”
Can you imagine your organization’s Chair or President talking like this? How would you respond? How would it change your view of them? It’s no longer about John’s failure, but how the organization failed John. That’s powerful stuff.
Most importantly, John will probably be willing to go out on a limb to do something challenging and unfamiliar in the future to support a cause and an organization he believes in, complete with new skills at his disposal and better support at his back. And that’s solid gold for a Cause Organization.