Bad News

Probably the truest test of leadership is how your organization deals with bad news. There are pretty much two ways organizations deal with bad news.

  1. Kill the messenger which leads to organizations never delivering bad news upward; or
  2. See bad news as an opportunity for improvement and learning.

I was struck by the absolute difference leaders make in which of these two paths an organization follows over the past week. The first can be highlighted by President Obama’s statement that he had no idea they ACA website was in such bad shape. Taking him at his word for such a critical deliverable from his organization leads one to wonder why no one told him of the problems. It has become obvious that many people working on the website knew there were severe problems well before the launch. Why were those messages not being delivered? Probably because the organization practices the first way of dealing with bad news – kill the messenger.

Contract that with a statement from Sal Kahn, leader of the Kahn Academy. He said he actually gets worried when he doesn’t hear about problems and things going wrong. It means they aren’t pushing hard enough as an organization. It also means he has made it clear to his organization that failures are acceptable – as long as they are discussed and dealt with.

I acknowledge that dealing with bad news is often very unpleasant – after all, that is why it is called “bad.” That said, while Sal Kahn may be a little bit out there is wishing for bad news, reality is that you and your organization is going to have to deal with bad news from time to time. The way your organization deals with it is largely up to you as their leader. They follow your example in how you share bad news up and they follow your example on how you deal with them when they share bad news with you. It’s easy to lead when things are going well. Leaders that people want to follow deal with bad news in a way that makes them want to stick around until things are going well again.

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