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Don't Hide Mistakes, Especially the Funny Ones

In recent weeks I have been thinking about humility and its role in effective business leadership. Being open about our weaknesses and recognizing and reminding others that we don't know everything seems counter-intuitive to many, yet it is often one of the main difference-makers between effective and ineffective leadership.

David Williams, a very effective business leader and CEO of Fishbowl Inventory, posted the following on FaceBook this morning:
 


Dave wrote three leadership thoughts he's been contemplating. Do you see what #1 is? Show you're human, selectively revealing weaknesses. Yesterday I used my weekly email to all of the employees at Aribex to follow this advice (before I had even read Dave's FaceBook post) and share two embarrassing moments that reveal some of my many weaknesses while traveling earlier this week. For your enjoyment and amusement, here they are:

Embarrassing Moment #1
So, my first embarrassing moment came when I was speaking during the press conference announcing the donation of the 10,000th NOMAD handheld x-ray system to a humanitarian outreach group. I was sharing some details from a humanitarian mission one of the NOMADs went on to a small village in Panama (so that you can understand why this is so embarrassing, I need to make sure that you know that Panama is a small country on the south end of Central America…remember learning about the Panama canal in school? Apparently I forgot.). It is a compelling story with amazing photos of the village chief in a loin cloth carrying the NOMAD in a hard-shell case and all! But, here’s the problem…when I was speaking, I somehow combined three different humanitarian trips into one. I explained about the hand-dug out canoe that carried the NOMAD over 4 hours to a remote village, but then I said the canoe traveled the Amazon river (please note that the Amazon river runs through the middle of South America and never comes near the country of Panama) in Cambodia (Please note that Cambodia is not in Panama, nor is it anywhere near Panama, or even South America for that matter. It is its own country on the other side of the world about 11,000 miles away!). Not my most brightly shining moment, by a long shot. Luckily everyone was good spirited about it and they teased me mercilessly for the entire luncheon after the press conference. We had a good time with it.

Making the speaking gaffe at such an important press conference was gut-wrenching. I initially wanted to run and hide, hoping no one noticed. Instead, I sucked up my pride, took full responsibility for it, and I think it was actually very effective at helping me come across as human and approachable in front of a group of people I had never met before...and my employees got a great kick out of it, too.

Embarrassing Moment #2
My second embarrassing moment came at the security check at the airport in Knoxville later that day. Some of you know I’ve been nursing a calf injury for over a month. One of the results of that has been that my calf muscles tighten up and become very painful when I spend a day on my feet. My physical therapist recommended that I use a rolling pin to “massage” my calves by placing my leg on the rolling pin and then rolling my calf over the edge. It is actually extremely painful, but helping me make progress to overcome the injury. I am supposed to perform this exercise two times per day, so I took a rolling pin with me in my carry-on bag on the trip. The TSA agent that saw it in my bag when it went through the scanner didn’t like it. They pulled me and my bag to the side, had me open the bag, and they searched through it until they found the rolling pin. I was very embarrassed…after all, who carries a rolling pin with them in a carry-on at the airport. Mike Heyn, Director of Sales and Marketing at Aribex, saw it all happen and was seriously considering denying any association with me. The security agent waved it around a little bit, then had a small conference amongst his co-workers. I caught quite a few “suspecting” glares from them and some of the other passengers. Finally the security person returned and told me I would not be allowed to carry it onto the plane—it could be used as a weapon and they would not allow it. Now I am out a rolling pin, I can’t keep up with my physical therapy regimen, and my wife isn’t thrilled about me using hers…I guess I’m in the market for a new rolling pin. Let me know if you know someone who can help :-)

In today's world of leadership, transparency and humility (I can't imagine these two existing independently in a leader) are critical ingredients for leadership success.

Lessons Learned:

  • When you make a mistake or a weakness is inadvertently revealed, resist the urge to try and cover it up or inaccurately sustain within others a sense that you are perfect or invulnerable.
  • When you make a mistake, swallow your pride and laugh at yourself. I've found you actually get over it a lot quicker, and people respect you more for it.
  • Don't try to take a rolling-pin on an airplane!

 

Comments

Chris Shumate
Title: Accounting Manager
Company: Dominion Development Group, LLC
LinkedIn Profile
(Accounting Manager, Dominion Development Group, LLC) |

Ken - Thanks for sharing your lesson on humility. I laughed and learned.

I hope your visit to Knoxville was good overall. Next time you're in the south with a rolling pin, try to convince the TSA you are going to roll out some of the best homemade biscuits they've ever tried. You may get to keep the rolling pin.

If the mountains outside of Orem are beautiful, come back to Knoxville sometime and enjoy the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Sevier and Blount Counties.

Ken Kaufman
Title: CFO
Company: Community Dental Partners
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, Community Dental Partners) |

Thanks, Chris. I loved Knoxville and the entire area...reminded me of living in Georgia about a decade ago. And great suggestion about the homemade biscuits...I certainly wasn't prepared with a good story, but now I am!

Michael Davidson
Title: Founder & Principal
Company: Business Recovery & Revival Services, LL..
(Founder & Principal, Business Recovery & Revival Services, LLC) |

Ken,

Thanks for the stories. The ability to laugh at oneself makes us all more human, which I agree is a good motivator. I’m sure the rolling pin is destined to become a classic! My airport story is that I was going through the Memphis airport when my carry-on was flagged for, of all things, metal collar stays (I started using plastic for travelling after this)! They were looking at them and talking amongst themselves about what to do with these obvious weapons. I was stunned, but still couldn’t help thinking about grabbing one of them from the inspector and shouting “En guard”! Who wouldn’t be scared by that? Eventually they let me go but when using the stays I still think about that once in a while and shake my head.
Also, many, many years ago when I was an auditor I found out from an airport inspector that I had a pair of scissors in my briefcase. I didn’t realize they were in the bag. Red faced, I told them to keep the scissors. They probably are with the rolling pin today!

Mike

Ken Kaufman
Title: CFO
Company: Community Dental Partners
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, Community Dental Partners) |

Michael, thanks for your thoughts and for sharing that experience. I'm sure the TSA has accumulated quite an amazing variety of things over the years!

Topic Expert
Wayne Spivak
Title: President & CFO
Company: SBAConsulting.com
LinkedIn Profile
(President & CFO, SBAConsulting.com) |

Funny, if they asked questions concerning your geographical dyslexia to the man on the street quizes done as a Jay Leno/Tonight show bit, they'd think you were right!

So maybe you were? - LOL

Ken Kaufman
Title: CFO
Company: Community Dental Partners
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, Community Dental Partners) |

Very funny, Wayne!

Bob Scarborough
Title: CEO
Company: Tensoft, Inc.
(CEO, Tensoft, Inc.) |

Thanks Ken – a great read. I like Dave Williams’s comments quite a bit as well – and agree that how we handle mistakes is an important part of leadership. To me the key word in Dave’s comment about mistakes is ‘selectively.’

We all make mistakes – and certainly we need to own ours and address them. As leaders we also need to own our company’s mistakes. Even more important as a leader is how we respond to the mistakes our team makes or our customers or partners make. Being human is reality – and being responsible is how we build credibility. At the same time we are often setting company culture expectations with the messaging we use – so acknowledging and owning mistakes isn’t the same as advertising mistakes. Since the stories we tell internally and externally become part of the DNA of our organizations I’ve found it best to talk about the mistakes where it emphasizes how we responded to the mistake as an organization.

I love the last comment on Dave’s list as well – ‘dare to be different.’ Years ago I read a definition of humility – I believe by Thomas Merton – that said humility is absence of image. Being authentic, being who you are without airs or image while still being highly effective, and laughing and addressing mistakes, all seem to be part of being a credible leader.

Bob Scarborough
www.tensoft.com

Ken Kaufman
Title: CFO
Company: Community Dental Partners
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, Community Dental Partners) |

Bob, these are great thoughts! I especially agree that part of humility is being authentic...and there is a direct, proportional correlation between authenticity and being received as a credible leader. People are smart and will see through someone that has an image, ultimately refusing to trust them.

Sara Voight
Title: Controller
Company: Critical Signal Technologies, Inc
(Controller, Critical Signal Technologies, Inc) |

Something not discussed specifically is that relaying mistakes you made in the past gives you a history to the people you are working with. "I look at these entries a lot because when I started out, I had the unfortunate knack to make them backwards." You have to be selective about what you share (people start to roll their eyes when they constantly hear real life examples), but it does let people know you have worked your way up to your current position, learning from your mistakes and growing along the way. Adding humor shows that you don't take yourself too seriously, and reflects that you are ok with mistakes others make as long as they learn from them.

Ken Kaufman
Title: CFO
Company: Community Dental Partners
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, Community Dental Partners) |

Sara, you make a great point. Obviously we haven't been with all of the people with whom we currently work for our entire careers, and sharing information and experiences from our past will certainly help put our depth and breadth into a more complete perspective with our current co-workers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this...very helpful.

Ken Mason
Title: Controller
Company: Pascua Yaqui Tribe
LinkedIn Profile
(Controller, Pascua Yaqui Tribe) |

Ken, you have inspired me to share one of my most embarrassing moments. Once upon a time, I was developing a budget for the company's largest operating expense line when I let an spreadsheet formula error creep in. When I discovered it, we were a ways down the road (but not nearly finished, thank goodness!) and were off by $1 million.

I sucked up my courage, went into the CFO's office with my head hanging and said in a small voice "I (messed) up." Ray said "What?" I repeated "I (messed) up." Ray roared with laughter before asking me for details. After I explained it, we strategized how to handle the situation and were able to keep the budget process moving forward. Ray enjoyed the moment so much that he had me repeat the performance for several colleagues.

This approach worked so well because I was the Lotus guru in the office, had been coined "Mr. Math" but most of all I knew my audience. The incident punctured a certain air of invincibility, which was a good corrective. The lesson learned was to own my mistakes with humility and humor.

Ken Kaufman
Title: CFO
Company: Community Dental Partners
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, Community Dental Partners) |

Ken M.,
This is a great example of humility and humor to become more transparent and "real". Thanks for sharing!

Ken Kaufman
Title: CFO
Company: Community Dental Partners
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, Community Dental Partners) |
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