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In his first interview after the National Basketball Association attempted to oust him as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling did something that few leaders do: He begged for forgiveness.
Mr. Sterling had become embroiled in controversy after his former mistress released an audio recording in which the 83-year-old magnate made a series of racist comments. That recording, which became an Internet sensation, prompted the NBA to fine him $2.5-million (U.S.) and take steps to force him to sell his interest in the Clippers.
“I made a terrible, terrible mistake,” Mr. Sterling told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “And I’m here with you today to apologize and ask for forgiveness for all the people I’ve hurt.”
Then, the real doozy: “Am I entitled to one mistake?”
Mr. Sterling raised a question that many leaders are likely asking themselves these days: Can leaders afford to make mistakes? Or, is the leash so short that just one misstep or screw-up means the end of a career?
Consider the decline and fall of former Mozilla chief executive officer Brendan Eich. He left his role after a month of protest and criticism over his support of a California ballot proposition to ban same-sex marriage.
A similar fate befell former Target chief executive officer Greg Steinhafel, although his departure wasn’t solely based on just one mistake.
After months of negative commentary, he was ousted in early May. Mr. Steinhafel was held chiefly responsible for a massive customer data breach and massive losses from its Canadian expansion.
Mr. Sterling, Mr. Eich and Mr. Steinhafel are not alone.
In its April update on CEO movement, executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas reported that six CEOs were forced from their jobs that month because of scandal, legal troubles or underperformance, many after widespread digital protest.
“In an age when conversations and actions can be recorded and indelibly posted on the Internet, companies have little choice but to respond,” John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said in a release.
Bad leadership – whether it involves a single mistake in judgment or chronic underperformance – should always have repercussions. But have we reached a point where there is no longer an “acceptable mistake?”
Certainly, misconduct is a non-starter; leaders who engage in inappropriate behaviour, whether personal or professional, should expect a quick and well-deserved termination.
In that context, it is really hard to see how Mr. Sterling could ask for mercy. He had already been the subject of a damning discrimination lawsuit that accused him of regularly taunting and demeaning African-American players and employees.
Even if it was his first moment of indiscretion, in a business where the vast majority of star employees are African-American, and a large portion of the fan base is African-American, it seems reasonable for the NBA to demand enlightenment from its owners on matters of race.
Was Mr. Eich treated fairly? Regardless of the number of online petitions howling for his resignation, his positions on same-sex marriage were deemed to be out of step with those of a majority of his employees, colleagues and, ultimately, customers.
Which brings us to Mr. Steinhafel at Target. Poor performance seems to be the general context for his resignation. But was the company’s decision to ask him to leave a bit hasty?
Mr. Steinhafel was, in effect, taking what were deemed at the time to be acceptable risks to augment Target’s online presence and take the company into a new country. Firing him because those risks did not reap expected rewards could be damaging to Target’s culture in the long run.
Many CEOs have told me they already feel they have they have no room for failure. As one put it, “You start playing not to lose, instead of playing to win.”
For many leaders, fear has become their primary motivator. Once this takes hold at the top of the house, it can cascade through the rest of the organization, eventually bringing innovation and risk-taking to a halt. That is hardly the result we want from our leaders.
Leaders can make mistakes. In fact, they should be encouraged to take risks that sometimes result in mistakes or setbacks.
More importantly, however, leaders and those who judge them need to separate the well-meaning mistakes – the ones that come from trial and error – from the egregious moral and ethical failures.
Those are the mistakes from which no leader should hope to survive.
Vince Molinaro (@VinceMolinaro) is managing director of the leadership practice at Toronto-based Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions and the author of The Leadership Contract.