I’ve been reading Justin Menkes’ book “Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others,” and it’s the best business book I’ve read this year by far.
I have to confess that I wasn’t initially sure I’d love it. “How to be a CEO” studies have gotten boring. But Menkes’ focus on personal accountability (rather than CEO self-aggrandization, swagger or getting power) has been a real surprise and very helpful for this site.
His idea of a “sense of agency” is a real revelation. (From the book: “Sense of agency…refers to the degree to which people attribute their circumstances and the outcomes they experience to being within their own control.”) Leaders with this sense do not feel that issues are someone else’e problem or out of their control. They are not defined by their circumstances. They find a way to make their circumstances better.
And they are not afraid to make mistakes. But rather than seek to offload blame on others, they, in Menkes’ term, “own their missteps,” even if they weren’t 100% responsible for them.
Let’s face it, for anything bigger than tripping on a crack in a sidewalk, very little that happens wrong is 100% our fault.
Menkes’ lesson, one that I think is embodied in the stories on this site, is that when things go wrong, the strongest leaders look inside, say what they could have done differently, learn those lessons, and improve their work going forward. As he writes, there’s a stage of every senior leader’s career when she is catapulted out of her comfort zone and into the unknown. For example, a VP of Engineering is asked to take over the company’s sales function. At that moment, her long-nurtured expertise (as stated in Milton Glaser’s fabulous video) is not helpful to her development.
Menkes writes, “leaders adjusting to a significant increase in responsibility invariably make many mistakes. Those who ultimately excel recognize and own these missteps quickly and use the experiences to grow into their positions of elevated authority and increased complexity. But for this learning curve to occur, it is absolutely crucial that they accept their role in these mistakes. If they have a low sense of agency, they cannot, and will fail.”
Because at the end of the day, if you are the leader (even if you are merely the “CEO of your own job“), casting about for blame or deflecting criticism to others only serves to delay the fixing of the problem and to blur the important lessons you could have been learning.
This result happened to Jeremy (whose story was covered in this earlier Mistake Bank entry): for two years, his underperforming team continued to miss targets, and Jeremy continued to blame those he had hired, colleagues, everyone else but himself. And until he “owned the missteps,” he wasn’t going to make it.