So, what’s your excuse?

25 April 2016
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When I was a US Junior National coach in track and field 34 years ago, at a major competition one of my star runners ran poorly in the heats and failed to qualify for the finals.

MANILA, Philippines – When I was a US Junior National coach in track and field 34 years ago, at a major competition one of my star runners ran poorly in the heats and failed to qualify for the finals. I met him as he returned to our area in the stands and asked him what happened. I can still remember the exchange like it was yesterday:

Athlete: “I didn’t win because it was raining.”

Me: “Did it only rain in your lane on the track? As far as I can see everyone had to run in the rain. So what’s the real reason?”

The real reason ended up being he had stayed up late and partied too much the night before.  Hmmm…

I recalled this story when I opened up the paper the other day and read a posting about a runner in the Boston Marathon who had to “overcome strong headwinds, hot weather conditions, and cramps” to reach the finish line. I had to laugh: 25,000 people finished the race, 25,000 people had to overcome strong headwinds, hot weather conditions, and cramps to finish. Everybody was in the same boat! So I guess the real reason is to provide an excuse for why a time isn’t as good as it was supposed to be? To put some spin on the result?

Welcome to the world of excuses. This is the world we live in. And business is just a part of this big, excuse-laden world.

So many of us wonder how reckless-talking politicians like Trump or Duterte can be leading candidates given the swirl of controversy that comes out of their mouths on a near-daily basis? We look for complex psychology to explain it and analyze them up one side and down the other. Well, here is a more simple explanation: most people  — call them voters, if you wish  —  are sick and tired of the bulls**t. The excuses. They are sick of the PDAF dramas and SAF tragedies and nobody takes responsibility. Today, so many leaders — in business as well — aren’t good at their jobs, yet what they are good at is how to deflect blame, generate excuses, and dodge responsibility at every turn. I have seen this personally. I have had a few bosses who really never built a single business in their careers. They were far from being business masters. What they mastered was how to explain away failure and dodge bullets. They mastered how to blame someone else.  In short, they mastered corporate politics but nothing more.

We are all sick of this. So for all their faults and flaws and foibles, when a Trump or a Duterte calls it as he sees it, in a sense many feel “refreshed” to finally have someone who puts aside political correctness and just blurts out whatever they think. When one is surrounded with people who constantly point fingers at someone else, suddenly a Trump or Duterte has appeal. At least you know where they stand. You may not like it, but at least you know their position. They don’t bulls**t people.

It saddens me to see young people in the corporate world learn these kinds of skills. Instead of learning how to build a business or how to take responsibility, they learn how to artfully craft a presentation; how to construe defeat into a victory; how to blame someone else when everything goes south. How to position themselves to look good and desecrate the others around them to save their asses.

When I failed to make the cutoff time at the South African Comrades Ultramarathon a few years ago, many people asked me what happened. I issued a note to my running friends. I could have talked about the heat (it was hot). I could have talked about the hills (there were dozens). But that’s the race and if I don’t like heat and hills, then I shouldn’t be running Comrades. What I said was simple and the truth: I didn’t prepare well enough. I didn’t put in enough hard work on the roads. And I paid the price. The learning? Train harder next time!

This is the only way to self-improve. To grow. To acknowledge the painful realities and deal with them.

The athletes that are going to win longer term are not the ones looking for easy excuses. The wind. The rain. The heat. No, they will explain why they failed to meet their time by dealing in harsh reality. Perhaps it was a poor race strategy, or improper training. Poor coaching. These can all be fixed. But wind and heat cannot be controlled, unless you want to run every race by yourself on a treadmill in an air-conditioned gym.

The young business leaders that are going to win longer term are the ones who have the courage to stand up and take responsibility. Call out success or failure transparently and honestly. Those who have the guts to come to my office and say, “Boss, we failed and I take full responsibility.”

Hell, I won’t fire them; I will promote them! Because I am like everyone else: I am sick of the bulls**t and the excuses. All I want is good, old-fashioned accountability and honesty. Not spin. Not excuses. Not a good story.

And that’s what is happening in the political arena. The voters are rewarding honesty. Not excuses. And this is a tide turning in all parts of society — business included. Brutal, direct, no-holds-barred honesty is the new commodity.

Perhaps a line from Oliver Stone’s award-winning movie Platoon said it best: “Excuses are like a**holes. Everybody has one.”

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