Plebe summer 1977 at the United States Naval Academy and there were only six verbal responses I could give a senior.
1. Yes, sir.
2. No, sir.
3. Aye aye sir.
4. I’ll find out, sir.
5. No excuse, sir.
6. Or the correct answer to his question.
When you’re 18 years old those are not exactly the type of responses that flow off your tongue. That was nearly 40 years ago and as I look back at those responses they still don’t feel natural. “No excuse,” in particular.
“Alan, why were you late for our meeting?”
No excuse … becomes “The traffic was bad.”
“Alan, why wasn’t this proposal delivered on time?”
No excuse … becomes “The printer broke down.”
“Alan, why didn’t we win their business?”
No excuse … becomes “Our prices were too high.”
Why accept the responsibility when you can pass it off to someone or something else? After all, bad traffic, broken printers and high prices are all good reasons for missing the mark.
But can you imagine the shock and awe in your boss or customer’s eyes if you responded, “there was no excuse for my failure.”
I know what you are thinking. Isn’t an apology just as good? Perhaps, but somehow “I’m sorry, but the traffic was bad” doesn’t come across with as strong as a conviction to do better in the future as “There’s no excuse, I’ll leave earlier next time.” No excuse is more than just an apology. It makes a statement that screams “I fell short and take full responsibility, and I won’t let it happen again.”
I admit, taking responsibility for situations that seem unfair, or out of your control, is not something that comes easily. But that’s what leaders do.