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July 23, 2013, Toronto – Alberta is drying out, although full recovery may take much longer in some areas. Lac-Megantic still looks like a war zone, heavy rains caused a building collapse in Toronto last week – and federal funding for HUSAR dried up four months ago. Stephen Harper is front and centre, saying all the right comforting things, but not making any of the right decisions.

July 23, 2013
By Peter Sells

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July 23, 2013, Toronto – Alberta is drying out, although full recovery may take much longer in some areas. Lac-Megantic still looks like a war zone, heavy rains caused a building collapse in Toronto last week – and federal funding for HUSAR dried up four months ago. Stephen Harper is front and centre, saying all the right comforting things, but not making any of the right decisions.

Leaders can change direction, admit they were wrong and correct a mistake, without losing face or showing weakness. This is so obvious a truth that I often wonder why so few leaders seem to understand it; in fact, they appear to believe the exact opposite.

In his Speaking of Leadership newsletter, Phil Holberton advises, “However, as leaders we must recognize the maxim that ‘to err is human.’ Accepting this, we must have the self-confidence and integrity to admit our mistakes. Only with such admission will we maintain the trust of those we lead.”

In an article picked up by the Globe and Mail, Amy Rees Anderson, founder and managing partner of REES Capital, writes “So often in business I deal with people who believe that admitting they were wrong shows weakness or ineptness. The danger of that belief, especially when it is held by people in positions of power or authority, is that it backs a leader into defending their poor choices, even when they themselves have come to recognize they were wrong.”

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Bob Whipple of the management consulting firm Leadergrow Inc. in Hilton, N.Y., maintains that, “One of the most powerful opportunities for any leader to build trust is to publicly admit mistakes.”

In 1993, the Chretien Liberals made a number of promises on their way to victory over the self-destructing Progressive Conservatives – among them to cancel the GST, roll back NAFTA, and cancel the PCs’ $5.8 billion, 43-unit, EH-101 helicopter contract. Nobody was really bothered by the helicopter contract; I’d wager that most of us wanted better than the Korean War surplus crap our forces were trying to keep in service (OK, I’m exaggerating – but not by much). But we were stuck with the GST and NAFTA, so in order to appear to be doing something, Chretien cancelled the helicopters. The only reason for that decision was that the contract had been awarded by the previous government. Nobody respected the decision, and we sure didn’t like paying half a billion in penalties with nothing to show for it. What if Chretien had come out and said that after consulting with the generals, and in consideration of the financial commitment already made, that we would go ahead with the purchase? Two days of mention on the front page, then relegated to the business section.

I’ve worked for bosses who were petrified of looking bad, to the extent that they simply made no decisions or at most just the easy ones. I’ve had bosses who deflected blame when a decision had to be changed. I even had one who claimed that the depth of his faith placed him on a higher moral plane of decision making, such that his edicts were beyond reproach. I only had one who ever listened closely enough to his staff to reverse a major decision, for example the relocation of a very expensive training simulator, or the cancellation of an ill-conceived and understaffed program, which was never going to show results. We didn’t see it as weakness; in fact it was an example of his strength of character and his trust in his team.

Why don’t more leaders understand this incredibly simple concept? Stephen, change your mind on the HUSAR funding. Whatever the bureaucrats at Public Safety Canada advised you previously, it should be obvious to you by now that the task forces are essential for extraordinary response across the whole of our country. Correct this error in policy, do it now and do it publicly. You might even get some credit for having vision, so that you can pretend that even the smallest part of this situation is about you.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo.


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