After blunder, confess and explain

Admit mistakesIn 2008, Jim Whitehurst took a big risk. And it backfired. From it he learned that as powerful as a CEO’s accessibility is, nothing builds engagement more than being accountable.

Whitehurst runs Red Hat, a maker of open-source software. When he was named CEO in December 2007, he sought to make a quick impact.

Nine months later, he paid about $100 million for Qumranet, an enterprise software firm. It was a hot company in a hot sector with its cutting-edge desktop visualization platform.

But because parts of Qumranet’s technology were not open source, Whitehurst knew it would take six months to a year to rewrite its code to align with Red Hat’s existing products. He decided against doing that.

Instead, he released Qumranet as is—with its proprietary code. Sure enough, Red Hat employees and customers started complaining about the product.

Whitehurst’s team was forced to withdraw the product from the market. It wound up taking 18 months to rewrite the code.

During the delay, Red Hat employees grew angry and frustrated. To his credit, Whitehurst took responsibility and admitted to his team—and the board of directors—that he had made a mistake.

“When you don’t make the time to explain why you made your decision, people will often assume the worst all on their own: that you’re detached, dumb, or don’t care,” Whitehurst says. “But when I made the time to explain the rationale—that we had in fact put a lot of thought into it—people finally understood.”

— Adapted from “Be A Leader Who Can Admit Mistakes,” Jim Whitehurst,