A New Leadership Philosophy: Burn the “Two Letters”

So there isn’t a “Two Letters” leadership philosophy per se, but the idea stems from this anecdote I was reminded of recently. You may have seen or heard it in a different form based on your source, but it goes something like this…

A newly hired CEO comes into his office and on his desk finds two sealed envelopes with a note from his predecessor. The note reads, “When you find yourself in a situation you can’t get out of, open the first letter and it will save you. And when you find yourself in another situation you can’t get out of, open the second.” Soon enough, the new CEO’s misdeeds get him into hot water and he remembers the letters. He opens the first and it simply says “Blame it all on me.” He does just that and it works like a charm, saving his neck and extending his career. In due time, he finds that he has again boxed himself into a corner. Without despair, he frantically searches his office for the second letter and tears it open. It reads, “Sit down, and write two letters.”

Although probably not as theatric, I’m confident that this scenario plays out across organizations every day (and feel free to substitute CEO with President, Commander, Principal, etc.).

The time has come for the rest of us to stop expecting and accepting this behavior.

The advice in the first letter, at its core, represents a one-free-pass secret code amongst senior leadership with no regard for accountability. In this case, the previous CEO volunteers to be a scapegoat. Surely this is the exception and not the norm, but even so, employees deserve a leader who would refuse such an offer. They deserve a leader willing to take ownership of his misstep, explain what went wrong and share his plans on how to correct the problem. It’s what he already expects of his employees…and they don’t have the comfort of a letter left of their desks.

Image Credit: Nina Matthews, Flickr

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One Response to A New Leadership Philosophy: Burn the “Two Letters”
  1. Richard Sherman
    December 21, 2010 | 3:11 pm

    Excellent post and, more than that, it caused a variety of reactions in me for such a short read and that’s got me commenting: the anecdote is one that makes the reader smile knowingly at first, and even chuckle. It has the beat and arrangement of a funny story or even a joke. But I realized as I read it that the smiling comes only from being distant – we laugh at the situation because, if we were lucky, we haven’t experienced it. So for those who have experienced it, the smile fades, the recognition comes, and there follows a big sigh. Yup. Seen it. And I’ve seen the aftermath. So your follow-up was right on the money for me: in some form or another, this happens all the time, and accountability is non-negotiable for a leader. If you muck it up, own it, fix it, and make sure you don’t do it again. So from that sad sigh I moved to a nod and an emphatic “right on”! Burn the letters!

    Thanks!
    Richard

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