7 things leaders should learn to say

Flickr user Voka - Kamer van Koophandel Limburg

(MoneyWatch) We've all seen business and political leaders make some remarkably dumb and destructive decisions. What typically comes to mind are major debacles like Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, the massive fraud at Enron and Worldcom, BP's Gulf oil spill, and the subprime mortgage meltdown.

But here's the thing. For every famous mega-disaster, a thousand slip under the radar screen. And every time we confront one of these nightmares, big or small, we ask ourselves, "Why do they do it?" Ironically, it rarely has anything to do with leaders' intelligence or even awareness that their actions will likely do more harm than good.

So what's behind the behavior that makes us all wonder how leaders ever managed to get hired, let alone achieve positions of power and authority? They put their own self-interest ahead of those they serve, and then rationalize or compartmentalize their behavior so they don't have to face the loathsome truth.

In other words, bad leaders are often selfish, weak-minded and blissfully unaware that their self-image is a skewed version of reality. I'm sure any good shrink can explain how people become that way, but that's neither here nor there. The truth is we all behave that way from time to time and to varying degrees. While I hate to admit it, I've got my own issues and karmic lessons to deal with, that's for sure.

Which brings us to the main point: Every one of us can do with an extra dose of humility and self-awareness to remind us that we're not always the insanely great business leaders, executives, managers and workers our oversized egos tell us we are. Along those lines, here are seven phrases you should learn to say -- and mean.

I accept full responsibility. Most say it; few actually do it. Some even say it and still manage to blame everything and everybody but themselves. Hewlett-Packard chief executive Meg Whitmancomes to mind, but even she isn't as bad as her predecessor, Leo Apotheker. Leaders who make excuses are poor excuses for leaders.

Sorry, I was wrong. Apple CEO Tim Cook apologized to customers over the iPhone 5 maps debacle, and rumor has it that former mobile software chief Scott Forstall had a real problem with that. That's one of the reasons he's a "former" Apple executive.

Actually, I have no idea. It took me years to learn how to say that, and you know what? It improved my credibility while lowering my stress at the same time. It's the same as admitting your wrong: it's a tremendous relief to let go and admit you don't know everything.

What do you expect of me? What can I do for you? It's not just a customer service attitude. It also helps you steer clear of making incorrect assumptions and goes a long way to clarifying goals, objectives and all sorts of things to keep you on the right path.

Do the right thing (for customers and stakeholders). When leaders use those four simple words to guide their decisions and encourage others to do the same, it helps create a culture that questions the status quo and encourages smart risk-taking that won't eventually land everyone in hot water.

Let me think about it and get back to you. When I was a young manager, I was taught to be a decisive leader. That's fine as long as you're not doing it just for show or overreacting to less data than you need to make a well-informed decision. In other words, listen to your gut, not your ego.

What can go wrong? What am I missing? What can derail our plan? What do you think? It's such a great feeling to get everyone all hyped up over a hot product idea or corporate vision that you just hate to take a step back and ask what can go wrong. Well, guess what? Skipping that crucial step is a sign of an immature leader who's not ready for prime time.

Look, I know it takes courage, patience and perseverance to do things the right way. I know that because I've made plenty of mistakes along the way. If you prefer to learn through trial and error, that's certainly understandable. Just try to pay attention and stay grounded, OK? As they say, keep it real.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Voka - Kamer van Koophandel Limburg