Making excuses is a favorite topic of mine when I speak to groups about leadership and character. I am often asked, “Aren’t there legitimate reasons for a failure? Shouldn’t that matter?”

My reply: “Yes. It matters. As long as we know the difference between an excuse and a reason.”

Excuses Shift Blame

An Excuse

An excuse is something we use to deflect blame. We use excuses to be sure others know the circumstances or the people who caused our failure. Notice how that works….

An excuse is used to avoid responsibility. When we shift the blame, we avoid responsibility for a failure, and we also avoid the responsibility for learning from that failure.

Excuses stunt our growth. When we make excuses, we tend to convince ourselves that we could not have changed the outcome, and therefore have no need to adapt for the future. Failure becomes easier to accept in ourselves, and we never grow beyond our current state.

The ease in which we make excuses is a window into our character. West Point teaches cadets that excuses are unacceptable for leader.

Click on the blog title that follows to read more about that:

West Point: How Leaders Seize Responsibility.

A Reason

There are reasons for failures. Circumstances and other people may have played a role in my failures. But my behaviors and my decisions are also part of the equation. For example:

I am late to an appointment.

  • Circumstances/Other People: Bad weather caused slick roads and slowed everyone down.
  • Circumstances/Other People: I hit every red light on the way.
  • My Behaviors/Decisions: I left my house with only a five minute cushion.
  • My Behaviors/Decisions: I did not take the weather into account.
  • My Behaviors/Decisions: I did not look at the weather report the night before.
  • My Behaviors/Decisions: I wanted to get an extra ten minutes of sleep.

My team’s project will be delayed.

  • Circumstances/Other People: I had a critical team member go out early on maternity leave.
  • My Behaviors/Decisions: I failed to have a back up plan in case she was unavailable.
  • My Behaviors/Decisions: I failed to assign her only to tasks related to the first part of the project in case she was unavailable later.

In both of these scenarios, there are reasons that were inside of my control and outside of my control that played a role in my failure. I set myself up for failure through my decisions and behaviors.

To avoid stagnation and grow, we must decide to accept our responsibility in the failure and learn to make better decisions. That is how we will grow in character.

The Bottom Line:

Reasons become excuses when they are used to avoid responsibility. That is the key difference between reasons and excuses.

When we make excuses, we are usually focused on everything and everyone else but ourselves. If we are unwilling take responsibility for our behaviors and our decisions that contributed to the failure, we are making excuses and failing to grow in character.

Our character is our habitual way of operating.  Our good habits and our bad habits form our character.

Making excuses is a bad habit.

The good news is habits are changed one decision at a time. We can decide to own up to our role in a failure and start a new habit. It is up to us to decide to take responsibility and grow or to shift blame and stagnate.


What is the favorite excuse you or others around you use for failure?

Dave Anderson is coauthor of the Amazon Best-Seller Becoming a Leader of Character – Six Habits that Make or Break a Leader at Work and at Home with his father General James L. Anderson (USA Retired).
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