Yesterday in the Senate Confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary, nominee Chuck Hagel committed a major error. Unfortunately, it is a common one—failure to own up to mistakes of the past.
In a heated exchange with Senator John McCain, Hagel refused to answer “Yes or No” to McCain’s question about the surge in Iraq. Hagel, at the time, had been opposed to the surge, as were many others. And there were some legitimate reasons to be. It wasn’t like they were arguing for a flat earth.
However, the surge worked.
Now, McCain was asking Hagel to say whether he had been right or wrong on the surge. Hagel refused, choosing in good senatorial fashion, to filibuster the question.
McCain several times requested a simple yes or no, and gave permission for Hagel to follow up with his comments. Hagel still refused.
Hagel said he would let history make the determination about whether he was right or wrong.
Apparently, Hagel is not aware that history has already made that determination.
What Hagel should have done was own his judgment. He should have said, “Yes, I opposed it. And the outcome showed I was wrong. But I opposed based on my best judgment at the time, a judgment with which many people agreed. Here’s what we learned from that.”
With that, the issue would have been off the table. But it wasn’t. So today, and probably for a bit to come, the issue will be in the news, along with a host of other problems in the hearing.
As leaders, we make mistakes. We are prone to misjudgment about events of the future. Some are avoidable. Some are not.
You see, leaders have to make decisions, and it almost always with 80-90% of the information. You never have 100%. And you should be very wary of making decisions with less than 60-70%, so far as you can tell. If you don’t have any unanswered questions, you aren’t ready to decide. You haven’t thought deeply enough yet.
So mistakes in judgment are inevitable. As a leader, you will make them.
Here’s the key: As leaders, we must own those mistakes, learn from them, and move on.
This is what enables us to lead out of mistakes. People under leaders can sense a filibuster, an excuse, and arrogance. They can also sense a genuine leader who isn’t afraid to say, “I was wrong. Let’s learn and get it right next time.”
You will usually get a few passes on mistakes (though you won’t get a lot).
It is foolish to give an answer like Hagel’s. Those around you will no longer trust you when they can see what you so plainly cannot see. They might offer outward respect when you are in the room, but when you are gone, there will be no respect. They will not have your back. And they will not follow you.
So when it comes to mistakes in the past, own them. Everyone knows you said it, or did it.
Then explain why you did it (if you have a good reason; just don’t make excuses and rationalize).
Then explain what you learned from it.
Then move on.