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My last blog, “Lead with Love,” received more comments than any of the hundreds of blogs I’ve published to date. I was pleasantly surprised with how strongly the topic of “love” resonated with readers. Thank you to the many who posted comments or sent me a note. This week I’m emboldened to take a bit of a different tact—more along the lines of tough love—by advocating that leading with character requires one to accept that there are no excuses.

I get ideas for blogs from the most unlikely places. My husband, Bob (who is now eating humble pie for suggesting I “find another word” for my blog on love!) and I watched a movie, “Red Notice,” last week. It’s a comedy about three thieves competing to steal priceless, decorated eggs supposedly given by Antony to Cleopatra way back in ancient times. At one point co-star Gal Gadot imparts suavely to her competitor whom she has just bested, “You can make excuses or get results, but not both.” That concept really resonated with me. Too often people blame someone or something else rather than taking responsibility. It’s the easy way out—a victim mentality that breaks down trust and respect, negatively impacting results in the workplace.

Learning to be Responsible
In 1978, I walked with trepidation through the intimidating gates of the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT. As a brand-new cadet, or student I was immediately thrust, along with my 311 classmates, into an intense training program. “Swab summer” mirrored the enlisted boot camp experience. Among the very first things we were taught was there were only three responses allowed when a question was put to us: “Yes sir/ma’am, no sir/ma’am, and no excuse sir/ma’am.” Those were never kindly-phrased questions about our family life, what kind of ice cream we liked, etc. No. Those were interrogations about why we missed something, why we were late, why we were in the wrong place, why we weren’t on time, why were we wearing the wrong uniform item. In every cadet’s mind, there was a darned good excuse for each error or shortcoming. But we were forbidden to voice them. And that was frustrating!

Flying High
My swab summer experience culminated with a one-week training cruise onboard the Coast Guard’s 300-foot sailing ship, the barque Eagle. My entire class (those who had survived the summer training) were flown out to Seattle where we met Eagle and sailed her down the coast to San Francisco. Standing out to sea, engrossed in the hubbub of rigging lines and setting sails, I felt my spirit soar. I could hardly believe I was embarking on the adventure of a lifetime! We cadets were placed in watch sections where we learned how to climb aloft in the rigging to set or douse sails, stand helm and lookout watch, and even learn about the engine room. Lying on my back on the cool teakwood deck at night, watching the stars twinkle between the giant sails, felt otherworldly. I didn’t want to miss anything during our short patrol, so I volunteered for extra watches. I hardly slept. After a week of excitement, we arrived in San Francisco. I was flying high.

Taken Down
We were loaded into a cargo plane and flown back to the Academy. I don’t remember landing or getting back to the Academy or even getting to my room and bed because I was so overflowing with exhaustion and exhilaration. All that changed the next morning when I accidentally overslept and was late to mandatory formation. My cadre (like a drill sergeant) blasted at me, “Why are you late, cadet Stosz?!” So many words started to well up in my throat. I wanted to say I overslept because I was exhausted from the most amazing experience of my life and explain it all in detail to him. Instead, I reflexively shouted, “No excuse, sir!” What a letdown.

Yes, it was frustrating to be forbidden to offer excuses. But, after a while, I began to learn that I could achieve better results by avoiding getting into a situation that required an excuse. I planned better, became more responsible for avoiding poor outcomes. I learned that by exercising my personal agency, I was far more inclined to succeed, and rarely had the urge to make excuses. I learned that there’s power in taking responsibility, even if you’re not to blame. It builds trust when a team that has made an error sees the leader stand up and say, “it’s my fault.” Those are the leaders people follow because they want to, not because they have to; and those are the leaders who will get the best results.

Look in the mirror: Think about the last time you made an excuse. What could you have done to get better results instead?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

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