Ken Kaufman's picture

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!

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