Strong leadership isn’t about never making mistakes, Livian CEO Adam Hergenrother writes. Here are the dos and don’ts that leaders should heed as we head into the new year.

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This post was updated June 29, 2023.

Adam Hergenrother is the founder and CEO of Livian. He believes that business is nothing but a conduit for personal growth and embraces the company’s vision to Love How You Live. When he’s not leading and growing his organizations, you can find Adam either in the mountains or out in nature with his wife and three children.

Mass layoffs continue to make headlines, employees are more burned out than ever, and inflation is causing businesses to make tough decisions about headcount and new hires.It’s like the wild west in the workplace these days. Just like in spring of 2020, we need leaders to step up and lead with strength, transparency and vulnerability. 

In times of uncertainty and constant change, people are looking for strong leadership to keep them inspired, focused and informed, as well as make sure they are heard, understood and supported.

When I think of strong leadership, I often think of Kim Scott’s (author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity) idea of radical candor and one of Ray Dalio’s (founder of Bridgewater Associates) core principles for success: “Be radically truthful and radically transparent.” 

Radical candor, as defined by Scott, is about caring personally while challenging directly. Dalio seems to agree, as do I. It’s about communicating directly and honestly, with kindness and respect. This can be to an individual or to an entire organization. 

Dos and don’ts of leading

Here are a few dos and don’ts of strong and transparent leadership: 

Do: Practice constructive criticism

Often the criticism is taken very personally when it comes out of the blue or seems inauthentic. You know that feeling you get when you are in a room with a co-worker or employee and you know exactly what should be said to them – good or bad? Say it.

No good comes from holding that information or feedback in. You know it needs to be said, and so do they. Practice giving feedback to your team and it will eventually become natural for you and them.

Do: Be vulnerable

Do not make assumptions, and be prepared to be wrong.

  • Do you know both sides of the story?
  • Do you have all the information?
  • Do you know where you team member was at personally when they made a particular decision?
  • Are you open to admitting your mistakes?

One of the key components to being a great leader is vulnerability and admitting that you may have gotten in wrong. The critical item here though is that you combine this leadership with strength — make sure the team knows how the failure or misstep is going to be fixed and how you and/or the company plan to move forward.

If that second part is missed, the whole message will fall flat and likely leave the team unsure and questioning their faith in your leadership. 

Don’t: Dish it out if you can’t take it

If you are prepared to be radically transparent with an employee, be open to unfiltered feedback in return. In fact, you should solicit this sort of feedback regularly, yet informally, from your team.

A great question for this is: What could I be doing differently or stop doing to make your life better? It gets people talking if they are somewhat nervous to give you feedback.

Do not become defensive or retaliatory (consciously or unconsciously). Team members will become hesitant to give any feedback if they know there will be consequences. Focus on creating an open and welcoming culture of honest and constructive feedback. 

Do: Criticize and compliment 

If you are leading at the level that I know you are all capable of, you should be giving candid feedback to your team regularly. But remember: Too much candor without any positive feedback could backfire.

Over the course of a week, for every criticism you deliver, give two to three compliments. But don’t just give the compliment to soften the candor. Give compliments when people deserve it; otherwise, people will feel that you are being manipulative or inauthentic.

If your team member did something great, let them know! And if they did something wrong, let them know that too. 

Examples of leading from the front

There are so many examples of great leaders who lead from the front, transform industries, and make positive changes to our society, but I really want to focus on those who have had to be strong in the face of challenges — that were either in their control or not. I think we can often learn more from leaders’ mistakes (and how they overcame them) than we can from their successes.

Let’s look at some examples of leaders who have mastered the ability to be transparent and vulnerable, while faced with difficult situations. 

“We made a mistake in how we approached our pricing changes, and what is important now is that we fix it.” – RJ Scaringe, CEO of Rivian

In March 2022, CEO of Rivian, RJ Scaringe, issued a letter of apology to customers about how they handled recent pricing updates. He went on to explain the logic behind the decision but admitted that even so, it was wrong, and they broke their customer’s trust with Rivian.

They also were transparent in sharing that they didn’t manage communication well. Scaringe outlines their solution to fix the mistake and their focus and plans for the future. He ends the letter by thanking customers for their feedback.

“I want to assure you that the events that transpired last week, and the way they transpired, will never happen again.” – David Neeleman, founder and former CEO of JetBlue

Founder and former CEO of JetBlue, David Neeleman, issued an apology via video to JetBlue customers in February 2007 after passengers were stranded on the tarmac for 11 hours with limited updates.

His message hit on a few key things that we can all learn from: accept responsibility, assure your clients or team that it will not happen again, and then outline key steps and changes that are going to be made to ensure that promise is kept.

In Neeleman’s case, he shared specific actions they would take over the next seven to 30 days. He also spoke directly to his customers and said, “I ask for your business and your trust.” 

“It’s not lost on me or any of the leaders who make these decisions that these aren’t just roles we’re eliminating, but rather, people with emotions, ambitions, and responsibilities whose lives will be impacted.” – Andy Jassy, CEO at Amazon

On Nov. 17, 2022, Andy Jassy, CEO at Amazon, issued an internal memo to his company about the upcoming role eliminations. This is another great example of strong leadership.

Jassy addresses the tough decision they had to make and why (the economy and rapid hiring in the past few years). He also shares as much detail as he can about what will happen, but also acknowledges that they don’t have all the decisions finalized yet, but he does tell them how those decisions will be communicated once they are made.

Jassy acknowledges the impact that these decisions have on the lives of his employees and how they will be supported during their transition. He then ends the note with words of gratitude and encouragement, recasting Amazon’s vision to “obsess over customers and invent relentlessly on their behalf.” 

Real-life examples of what not to do

And, let’s just take a look at a few examples of what not to do: 

  1. Don’t conduct a mass layoff of employees via Zoom or email your staff and call them “dumb dolphins.” 
  2. Don’t allow hubris and an “undisciplined pursuit of more” to guide your decision and actions.
  3. Don’t create an incentive structure based on a lack of ethics and always inspect what you expect. 

Strong leadership isn’t about never making mistakes. It’s about clear and transparent communication when those mistakes are made. And if you create a culture of radical candor, truth and vulnerability from the get-go, it will be that much easier to flex those skills when called upon in the face of uncertainty and challenges. 

Adam Hergenrother is the founder and CEO of Livian, the author of The Founder & The Force Multiplier, and the host of the podcast, Business Meets Spirituality. Learn more about Adam’s companies and culture here.

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