One thing I’ve learned is how tempting it is, even for smart and successful leaders, to ignore or minimize what is beneath the surface. This is never truer than when results are good. Good news doesn’t often beg for deep questioning but it should. Why? There are three reasons. If you don’t know what is causing success:

  1. It is impossible to repeat it.
  2. You can’t teach it.
  3. You won’t know if it is a façade.

The debacle that continues at Wells Fargo is a recent case in point. The results were good if you looked at them in a particular way and lousy if you looked at them in another. WorldCom, Country Wide, Enron, and Bernie Madoff’s firm are all examples of companies that looked good from a particular vantage point at a particular point in time but underneath lay skullduggery.

Fortunately, most people don’t work in companies run by dishonest leaders. Often troubles come from human misjudgment, over-confidence, and expediency. The intentions are very different.

Once a leader realizes that an honest oversight has caused a problem, it may be tempting to hide it. Click To Tweet

When The Home Depot experienced a major breach in its information systems, the company reacted very differently than what we have seen in recent days from Equifax. The then CEO, Frank Blake, took very constructive action. I describe this in my book and it’s obvious that I greatly admire Blake. That said, this example is one that we know about because it caused a crisis for the company. The leaders couldn’t ignore it and they didn’t.

What of all the systemic issues in companies that go unnoticed until they cause a crisis that could be avoided? What of the leaders who run their organizations well? What happens when something looks suspicious? Here’s what happens: They look into it, make changes and move on. We don’ t hear about it.

We don’t hear about the fires prevented by the Fire Marshall, the deaths prevented by good care of an autoclave in a hospital or economic losses avoided by skillful management of floodwater.

I am privileged to work closely with leaders. I see the work they do and the work many others do to interrupt things going off course, to reign in bad processes and bad actors. They can’t prevent everything and great leaders know that good results are no reason to take their eye off the ball.

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