When we talk about admirable leadership qualities, most involve looking forward. The ability to put together a winning strategic plan. A knack for predicting what consumers will want next week and next year.
But an underappreciated aspect of good leadership is the willingness to learn from mistakes. And in order to learn from them, you first have to spell out what went wrong and accept your own part in making them happen.
Take the situation at one of the country's highest-profile corporations, General Electric (Stock Quote: GE). The company's share price has fallen about 75% in the past year, and this week CEO Jeffrey Immelt publicly shouldered some of the blame, acknowledging that the strength of the GE brand had been damaged by decisions made under his leadership.
A bold move? It's certainly a fairly rare one. Many CEOs are eager to point the finger anywhere other than the executive suite when it comes time to explain poor performance. But if you expect employees and clients to buy into your dreams for the future, you have to make peace with the past.
"Let's face it: Our company's reputation was tarnished because we weren't the 'safe and reliable' growth company that is our aspiration," Immelt wrote in his annual letter to stockholders. "I accept responsibility for this."
Describing how GE's stock has been "hammered," Immelt said, "no one is more disappointed than I am with the performance of our stock in this tough environment." As part of what I'd call his penance strategy, he declined an annual bonus that could have added up to as much as $12 million. (He receives an annual salary of about $3 million.) Earlier this week, he also bought 50,000 GE shares as a show of confidence.
"We hear a lot lately from executives who say they hadn't seen the current global financial crisis coming and are now surprised by how swiftly it has built and taken over markets," says Peter Madsen, Distinguished Service Professor for Ethics and Social Responsibility at Carnegie Mellon University. "Such disclaimers are likely meant to ward off critics who argue these executives have been asleep at the wheel. Immelt's announcement sounds like a new and creative way for a CEO to respond. At least he's not hiding behind a veil of ignorance."