In the process of delivering bad news to someone, if you’ve ever uttered the words in the title of this column, you might want to stop.

You’re about to step on a leadership landmine.

That warning came from speaker, consultant and author Marty Clarke, who spoke to HARDI conference attendees in Colorado Springs, Colo., in early December about leadership pitfalls to avoid.

“When you say, ‘Don’t blame me, it came from upstairs,’ you just took the brick of gold on your desk that says leader and threw it out the window,” he said. “You are more concerned about people having a higher opinion of yourself than the overall health of the organization. If you have to give bad news to a group of people, your job is to deliver the decision. All the hate is on you.”

On the topic of office popularity, Clarke said worrying about how employees perceive you will only lead to trouble. “That’s how bad decisions are made and things go from bad to worse,” he said. “If it’s more important to be popular than it is to be a leader, you have a leadership landmine. Sometimes leadership is a lonely part of the game. Sometimes you don’t get invited out with everybody for chili at lunch. Is it my people respect and follow me or do you need to have your people love you? Know where your priorities are.”

Clarke, whose talk felt more like listening to a talented comic than a convention speaker, kept the leadership tips flowing. He said to keep an eye out for those who are “managing to the exception.” He cited one professional experience where a company came up with the idea to provide employees with free coffee on a particular day as a show of appreciation. Objections to the idea included one department that drank tea and another that enjoyed Mountain Dew. The idea turned out to be a huge hit.

“Managing to the exception kills creativity and team progress,” he said. “It allows small minds to prevail. An idea that might make a contribution gets discarded because there’s a minor flaw and it’s not the perfect idea. When small consequences start to dictate larger issues, you have a problem.”

He then provided four steps to deal with those exception managers. “Pay attention to your radar. You got to where you are because you are smart,” he said. “Eighty percent of the time you are going to be right. And then ask yourself if the exception is a deal breaker? Sometimes it will be, but most of the time it’s not.”

The final two steps are where leaders take center stage. “Stop the bus. Leaders step in regardless of what it says on your business card,” Clarke said. “I encourage you to use the words ‘managing to the exception.’ As soon as they hear that, you’ve defused them. They will sit quietly and you will get the conversation back on track. That’s what leaders do.”

And be on the lookout for the phrase “I’m just saying.”

“It’s the inveterate phrase of the exception manager,” Clarke said. “What they really are saying is, ‘I have no point, but I’m still running my mouth.’ One of the responsibilities of a leader is to maintain the dignity of the person in question. Validate the concern, make sure there is no public ridicule and get the conversation focused back on the goal.”

Clarke also had some helpful advice on the topic of leadership communications and credibility. If you are one that has the tendency to leave long voicemails for people or speak your phone number into a voice message so fast it can’t be understood by the recipient, you might want to curb those habits. Clarke asked how many people have endured the mock-speed phone number problem and the majority of the room raised their hands.

And then there is the issue of sending emails. “Email will monkey with your credibility if you cannot handle yourself with the written word,” Clarke said. “You live on this planet. Proofread your emails.”

Clarke said true leaders will show themselves, particularly when things are going off the rails. Placing blame and playing the “what if?” game does nobody any favors, he added.

“Force yourself into present-tense thinking,” he said. “Sometimes things don’t go perfectly or smoothly. When a crisis hits, you are going to find out who your leaders are.


This article was originally titled “Don’t shoot the messenger” in the January 2017 print edition of Supply House Times.