Leaders: Give People Answers, Not Excuses

Last Updated May 19, 2011 2:07 PM EDT

Leaders Give People Answers Not ExcusesAmerican's love it when the little guy makes it big. We loved it when young Steve Jobs and upstart Apple took on Big Blue, IBM, in the 80s. We loved it even more when Jobs brought Apple back from the brink of bankruptcy to become the world's predominant consumer electronics brand.

We're even willing to forgive a little a**holeness in our leaders that pull off these massive feats while creating huge amounts of wealth for thousands of stakeholders. Besides Jobs, Bill Gates and Larry Ellison come to mind.

Yes, we're willing to forgive an awful lot in the name of success. But, one of the things we really can't stand and will not - and should not - abide is when leaders with enormous responsibility and even bigger compensation plans make excuses and blame others.

That, to me, is unforgiveable. And if it isn't a golden rule of leadership, it should be. It's really surprising how some of our most important business and political leaders think that making excuses and blaming their predecessors somehow gets them off the hook.

Our first case in point is Hewlett Packard CEO Leo Apotheker. Now, I'm no fan of Apotheker or H-P's board, for that matter. But until recently, that was based solely on the former's horrendous track record at SAP and the latter's even worse record of hiring and firing CEOs at H-P.

HP CEO Leo ApothekerHowever, since joining the company just six months ago and raising its financial targets, Apotheker has twice lowered his fiscal year forecast, once each quarter. And each time, he's made excuses and blamed others.

On Tuesday's earnings call, Apotheker blamed H-P's shrinking growth targets on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and a slowdown in consumer PC purchases caused by the startling success of Apple's iPad.

All of which is interesting, because none of H-P's main competitors seem to have been materially affected by those factors. Indeed, IBM, Oracle, and Dell are all trading at or near multiyear highs, while HP is rapidly approaching a two-year low.

Apotheker also blamed former H-P CEO Mark Hurd for failing to invest in higher profitability services and software development, "We overinvested operationally and underinvested strategically," said Apotheker, according to Forbes. And, in a Wall Street Journal interview, he said, "We talked strategy, we just failed to execute in the past."

Now that's really interesting since Apotheker is the one doing all the talking about strategy while Hurd's performance over five years at the helm of the computer giant was virtually flawless by any metric.

Now, my second case in point is going to piss some people off, but so be it. It's President Barack Obama. I find it appalling that the most important and powerful leader in the free world has continuously blamed the nation's woes on his predecessor, George W. Bush.

As one example of many, at a Democratic party event, Obama blamed the recession on Republican policies: "We got here after 10 years of an economic agenda in Washington that was pretty straight forward," he said. "You cut taxes for millionaires, you cut rules for special interests, and you cut working folks loose to fend for themselves. That was the philosophy of the last administration and their friends in Congress."

To be fair, lots of politicians open their mouths and blame just naturally seems to slither out - interspersed among the partisan rhetoric and empty promises - but that's no excuse for a sitting American president to chronically blame others when our national debt is at record levels, our economy is sluggish, and unemployment remains unabated.

Look, avoiding blame is simple. Don't point fingers. Avoiding excuses is even easier. Don't make them. Instead, give it to your stakeholders straight and, if objective and meaningful metrics don't work out in your favor over time, well, then it means you weren't very good at your job, doesn't it? So suck it up and deal with the consequences.

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