“Once people stop making excuses, stop blaming others, and take ownership of everything in their lives, they are compelled to take action to solve their problems. They are better leaders, better followers, more dependable and actively contributing team members, and more skilled in aggressively driving toward mission accomplishment. But they’re also humble—able to keep their egos from damaging relationships and adversely impacting the mission and the team.” – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, Extreme Ownership

I will never forget an early lesson on “ownership”, shared by a leadership coach I met twenty years ago. It went along these lines:

If you’re late to a meeting or to work, own it 100%. Rather than say you got stuck in traffic or the alarm didn’t go off or (fill in the blank with a favorite excuse), simply say, “I’m late and should have been on the road earlier. I’ll leave earlier next time”.

Wow. Sounds simple but, as a 26-year-old, I made all kinds of excuses for being late and didn’t need to anymore! This was a big lesson and a huge relief. I learned that it’s ok to admit I made a mistake, versus coming up with an elaborate excuse.

I learned to take ownership and then live up to a higher standard for myself and for the team.

Fast track to today and the importance of taking ownership often comes up as a mission- critical lesson that leaders need to learn.

Since my work involves interviewing candidates and assessing talent for all kinds of positions, junior and senior, I hear many different examples of taking ownership or not.

Of course, we all go through difficult situations and, as easy as it can be to talk about how others were at fault – and they probably were, along with us – the fact is that leaders who can share a challenge without ‘throwing others under the bus’ are much more attractive than those who make excuses or blame others when things go wrong.

Here’s an example from a recent interview when the candidate discussed a big challenge in her career. Notice the language:

I underestimated the possibility of a market downsize.

I had to admit that I underestimated this outcome.

We needed more equity than we thought, like a few million. We had to go back to the investment committee. We asked for 80 and we needed 84.

It’s not a position that the Managing Director wants to be in. They want it all to go well and without a hitch, of course.

Bringing that up to my MD and having that conversation – it was tough, but it felt like something I should have predicted, and I should have foreseen.

In this example, there is no blaming others, no excuses about problems with data. The candidate took responsibility, stayed up late to get the data ready to present; and the next morning, with her boss, spent five minutes course-correcting with the Investment Committee. All was not only well, the candidate was later promoted for taking responsibility and learning how to improve next time.

This expression of ownership is refreshing, inherent in most A-Players, and gives confidence that others can trust them as a leader. Even if something goes wrong, the leader demonstrates the ability to take ownership and teaches others how to avoid repeated mistakes.

On the flip side, check out this example:

The warehouse was a disaster and my Head of Maintenance was completely at fault. I had to walk around with him and repeatedly ask in a stern way, ‘why is this not fixed? You told me a lot of reasons but none of them are good reasons so explain to me why this is not fixed.’

A lot of these people were from southern states or Puerto Rico. The only way to get them to get something done is to push them.

Yikes. Instead of getting curious about how leadership was responsible, the leader chose to blame the team and rely on brute force to get things done. This expression of blame is what we call a Red Flag – one signal that we may have a B/C Player fit for the role. These include:

  • Repeatedly blaming others
  • Making excuses
  • Making destructive comments about others, and/or
  • Throwing people under the bus instead of taking ownership.

Sometimes, leaders simply lack awareness and can adjust their style and thoughtfulness to achieve better results. With feedback and coaching, leaders can learn to take 100% responsibility for failing strategies, both in business and in life. This makes it much easier to develop others into better leaders.

The Challenge

  • The next time something goes wrong – before you blame any process, person, or situation – think about how you might be responsible and communicate your ownership.
  • Listen carefully to what you may be hearing from teams or individuals, when things get challenging. Ask yourself how you are accountable within the situation. What could you have done to avoid the challenge or support your team better? Then express that to the team to demonstrate your ability to communicate ownership.
  • Lead by example to create a culture of ownership. You’ll be amazed out how quickly the blame language turns into ownership language.

Achieving a culture of ownership starts with the leader and is a trusted steppingstone towards incredible personal and business growth.

Lawrence & Co Advisor Michelle LaVallee is a Topgrading Champion who has supported international companies, across multiple industries, to achieve at least 85% A-Players in the midst of rapid growth.

Join Michelle and Kevin Lawrence for their popular Topgrading webinars and workshops.