When we talk about admirable leadership qualities, most involve looking forward. The ability to put together a winning strategic plan. A knack for predicting what consumers will want next week and next year. But an underappreciated aspect of good leadership is the willingness to learn from mistakes. And in order to learn from them, you first have to spell out what went wrong and accept your own part in making them happen. Take the situation at one of the country's highest-profile corporations, General Electric ( GE). The company's share price has fallen about 75% in the past year, and this week CEO Jeffrey Immelt publicly shouldered some of the blame, acknowledging that the strength of the GE brand had been damaged by decisions made under his leadership. A bold move? It's certainly a fairly rare one. Many CEOs are eager to point the finger anywhere other than the executive suite when it comes time to explain poor performance. But if you expect employees and clients to buy into your dreams for the future, you have to make peace with the past. "Let's face it: Our company's reputation was tarnished because we weren't the 'safe and reliable' growth company that is our aspiration," Immelt wrote in his annual letter to stockholders. "I accept responsibility for this." Describing how GE's stock has been "hammered," Immelt said, "no one is more disappointed than I am with the performance of our stock in this tough environment." As part of what I'd call his penance strategy, he declined an annual bonus that could have added up to as much as $12 million. (He receives an annual salary of about $3 million.) Earlier this week, he also bought 50,000 GE shares as a show of confidence.
"We hear a lot lately from executives who say they hadn't seen the current global financial crisis coming and are now surprised by how swiftly it has built and taken over markets," says Peter Madsen, Distinguished Service Professor for Ethics and Social Responsibility at Carnegie Mellon University. "Such disclaimers are likely meant to ward off critics who argue these executives have been asleep at the wheel. Immelt's announcement sounds like a new and creative way for a CEO to respond. At least he's not hiding behind a veil of ignorance." Of course, words alone won't save GE. Indeed, the company's stock price went down slightly after Immelt's statement was released. No one, no matter how great a leader he or she may be, can predict where the economy is headed these days. But Immelt at least laid out a concrete plan for the future. Not surprisingly, that includes less of an emphasis on financial services. "I think this environment presents an opportunity of a lifetime," he wrote. "I've told our leaders that if they are frightened by this concept, they shouldn't be here. But if they're energized, and desire to play a part in transforming the company for the future, then this is going to be a thrilling time to be a part of GE." While making peace with the past is crucial, hand-wringing will only get you so far. You have to show employees and customers that you've mapped out a clear route forward --avoiding those earlier mistakes. During the boom times, GE's identity was somewhat muddled: Was it a technology company? A pseudo-finance company? If nothing else, the economic crisis has forced GE to tighten its focus. And that might ultimately make for a stronger company. "It's not just that the company's reputation has been tarnished," says Madsen. "GE shares have plummeted under his watch and for the first time since 1938, the firm has reduced its dividend. There are shareholders who would say GE is more than a tarnished business under Immelt. They look to their huge losses and wonder if an apology is all they will get." Admitting you were wrong only takes you so far. A leader has to make that apology a starting point toward a larger goal, and then deliver. Because most leaders only get one chance to say they're sorry.