Are You a Real Leader? Here’s One Test

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For fifteen years, I produced a sketch comedy TV show in Seattle, Washington. And for fifteen years, I was routinely asked the question, “What, exactly, does the producer actually do?” Many times, this question was asked by my mother. My stock answer was this:

“The producer is the person who apologizes the following day.”

As hilarious as this answer might be [How hilarious? On a scale from 1 to 10…about a 4], it’s only partially in jest. The producer is the person who apologizes the following day—and that, to a certain extent, defines what it is to be a leader.

Whether you’re leading the staff of a television show or leading an entire corporation, your job ultimately comes down to one word: responsibility. As a leader, you are responsible for the team. And that means that, if and when things go wrong, you take the responsibility. You don’t pass the buck, or blame someone else. You suck it up and take the hit, no matter how much it hurts. Being a leader is about character and integrity, and if you don’t have those qualities, then please step down and make room for somebody who does. We’ve all seen too many examples of so-called “leaders” who didn’t have the courage to take responsibility, to “apologize the following day.”

In 1966, John Lennon gave an interview to a British journalist named Maureen Cleave, in which he said, among other things, “We’re [the Beatles] more popular than Jesus now.” Now, you have to understand that John was not bragging. He was, in fact, regretting the fact (and it was a fact) that Christianity had gotten to a point where the Beatles were, in fact, more popular among the younger generation than Jesus. I’m not going to get into a theological argument here, but suffice it to say that when this quote hit America, it was taken way out of context. At first John tried to ignore the uproar. When it became clear, though, that his remark was going to have huge repercussions to the entire band, what did John Lennon do?

He apologized. He didn’t want to. He didn’t feel that he had done anything wrong. But he also knew that he was the leader of the band, and leaders take responsibility. And so he apologized.

Now, let’s be clear about something. Taking responsibility doesn’t necessarily mean apologizing. Harry Truman famously had a plaque on his desk in the Oval Office that said “The buck stops here.” He had to make tough decisions, and he didn’t apologize for them. But he did take responsibility for them—the popular ones and the unpopular ones alike. (By the way, for you kids reading this—Harry Truman used to be the president. Of America. I think he was right before Lincoln. Or maybe right after. But he was in there somewhere.)

Real leaders have character. Real leaders have integrity. Real leaders take responsibility. And yes, when necessary, real leaders apologize. So I guess it just comes down to one question:

Are you a real leader?


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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