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Hamartia – How Good Leaders Face Their Tragic Flaw and Rebound After A Misstep

By Ron Carucci

Continuing with our connection of modern management with ancient philosophical wisdom, I had the opportunity recently to see one of Aristotle’s principles on vivid display. The concept of Hamartia derives from the Greek concept of “to miss the mark” or “an error in judgment.” Aristotle first coined the concept in reference to Greek tragedy, where a beloved hero or person of noble rank faces misfortune through their own deeds.

About a year ago, I was meeting with a client of mine, let’s call him Pete, the President of a $5B Division of a Global $60B company. By all standards, Pete is an exceptional leader – he was humble, smart, and highly regarded across his corporation.  Despite his beloved status, he struggled when it comes to high-risk decision making.  His division competes in a volatile segment of their industry, and having to adapt to disruptive circumstances is routine.  To counteract this struggle, we designed a governance structure for his division (the distribution of decision rights, resources, and authority) that allowed complex decisions to be vetted quickly with the strongest views and data weighing in.  His leadership team was excited about this because they were sometimes frustrated with Pete’s hesitancy to take risks in the face of uncertain data and choices for which they lacked adequate experience.

Unfortunately, before the new governance was implemented, Pete’s Achilles heel showed up in a “Greek Tragedy” kind of way. His apprehension about a market opportunity – one for which most of his team supported while two opposed – got the better of him.  There was compelling data indicating this opportunity, though risky, had upside that made it worth pursuing.  But the opportunity was time bound, and Pete’s indecisiveness led them to miss out. And worse, Pete’s embarrassment and fear of what his leaders would say if led him to downplay the missed opportunity. Of course, this backfired and Pete’s credibility was damaged.

My research on organizational honesty revealed that when organizational governance is ineffective hard decisions aren’t made in transparent and truthful ways, you are three times more likely to have people lie or withhold the truth.

That even applies to otherwise honest leaders. 

Every leader has some form of hamartia – a potentially fatal flaw they wrestle with. If you’re like Pete, you’re not alone. Many leaders struggle making hard decisions.  In fact, in our ten-year longitudinal study of executive leadership with more than 2,700 leaders, 57% percent of newly appointed executives said that decisions were more complicated and difficult than they expected. For leaders who struggle with the ambiguity that often comes with decisions that have long-term implications, the anxiety over being wrong can be consuming. They try to impose certainty by analyzing more data and soliciting more opinions but the real issue is their fear of looking stupid. Taking action in the face of incomplete data is an executive’s job. You sometimes won’t know if the decision was “right” until long after it’s made.

The consequence of this common rationalization is that you teach people that they should avoid mistakes at all costs and that “looking right” is more important than “doing right.” Further, if you end up backing yourself into a corner where you have fewer options and have to make a sub-optimal decision anyway, you look more incompetent than had you made the best decision possible with limited data.

As an executive, you should model taking calculated risks and learning from mistakes. While the consequences of any one choice may appear grave, your anxiety is likely distorting the reality. Among the thousands of decisions you and your fellow leaders make in any given week, some of them will not go as hoped. You serve your people better by modeling how to navigate that reality than by trying to convince them it can be avoided.

Fortunately, Pete’s story has all the elements of a Greek Tragedy.  In case you haven’t brushed up on your ancient Greek culture in a while, here’s a reminder of what they are:

As for punishment, Pete was very fortunate that his longstanding reputation provided some protection, so his punishment wasn’t fatal.  He apologized to his corporate leaders for not informing them of the misstep before they learned about it elsewhere.  He took responsibility for his “hamartia” by telling them about the new governance design in his division that would allow more transparency in how risks were calculated so that decision making could be quicker.  Pete also apologized to his team, and was especially contrite with those who adamantly supported the missed opportunity.  For Pete, the public shame and tarnished reputation of his misstep was his punishment.  He knew he would have to work hard to regain the credibility he’d lost, but he was determined to do so. For many leaders who avoid taking responsibility for their hamartia – their tragic flaw, the consequences can be far worse.

Wisdom, the translation of our shortfalls into hard won insight that helps avoid repeating those missteps, was the ultimate prize for Pete.  Today, his new governance design is starting to take hold. Leaders on his team, and a level below them, are vigorously engaged in debate with the best available data to calculate risks when evaluating problems and opportunities.  There is much greater transparency in their dialogue, and most importantly, the safety to admit when they feel unsure or uncomfortable.  Pete is becoming more comfortable with uncertainty and risk, in some measure because he’s surrounded himself with great leaders who have complimentary skills.

We all stumble at some point.  Those stumbles are compounded when we don’t embrace the wisdom they invite us to gain.  If you are an executive whose never faced hard into your hamartia, (or worse, if you don’t even know what yours is), accept that it’s only a matter of time before it catches up to you.  Don’t wait until that happens. Your reputation and credibility are worth far more than whatever it will cost you to face that flaw.

Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.

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