Be Bold To Admit Where You Have Failed

Be Bold To Admit Where You Have Failed
A letter from LIM TIT MENG
Chief Executive, Science Centre Board (SCB), 2010-present
Assistant Chief Executive, SCB, 2007-2009
Associate Professor, Department of Biological Science, NUS, 1987-present (on secondment)


I have the habit of writing weekend emails to my Science Centre colleagues. I call the emails my love letters to my beloved staff. The letters help them understand who I am as a person, what I have learned or observed that week, or how and why I do certain things. The contents often include my personal reflections, or even issues that trouble me or concern the organisation. My motivation is to encourage, challenge or inspire my team members. I have written more than 300 letters so far.

Many staff tell me they enjoy reading my weekly sharing. Some have even filed every letter since January 2010. But one fateful letter I wrote provoked a staff to break our code of conduct and send the internal email to AWARE, a gender equality advocacy group.

That letter was written on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2014, with an intent to challenge my female colleagues to think if some may one day succeed my deputy who had passed 62, or even myself when my secondment term ends. Unfortunately it made me look like someone who did not believe in female leadership capability. It subsequently went into the press and was widely circulated on social media. I came under intense spotlight to explain why I wrote such a sexist letter.

The first thing I did was to disclose to our parent ministry, the Ministry of Education, and the Chairman of the Science Centre Board the nature of the email that was leaked. I also forwarded them the letter as it was. I apologised and accepted total responsibility for my actions. I then openly and unreservedly apologised to the public who were angered by my letter.

I knew everyone was watching to see how I would handle the episode. I could have focused on myself as a misunderstood leader and thought of myself as a victim. But I realised that would only make me look like a self-centred, self-justifying leader, and would only widen the crack between my team and me.

I hence admitted to them that despite my good intentions, I should really learn to be more sensitive about my choice of words in my weekend emails. At a townhall meeting, I apologised and assured them there would be no investigation into who had broken the code of conduct.

If I did not deal with it by first admitting where I went wrong and apologise for the cause of unhappiness, I would also be unhappy because of the mistrust in our midst.
The episode made me reflect on my communication style, with a determination to hone my writing and conversation skills. It is now a habit for me to review and revise my weekend letters several times before I post them. I also learned to exercise empathy more than before, to put myself in the shoes of my colleagues to understand a situation or a problem from their perspective.

When I was invited to lead the Science Centre, I had challenged myself to cultivate a work ethos with the acronym FAITH. Everyone is to treat one another as in a Fellowship with Accountability, Integrity, Trust and Happiness.

That my letter was leaked clearly showed that there was some unhappiness in my team. If I did not deal with it by first admitting where I went wrong and apologise for the cause of unhappiness, I would also be unhappy because of the mistrust in our midst. I had to demonstrate that I was accountable for my actions.

I share with you my story in case you get into a similar episode in your career that may bring you tears. I encourage you to keep up the core values of service with integrity, accountability and being true to yourself. Be transparent and not try to cover up your mistake. If you fall, you must be bold to look at your weaknesses and admit where you have failed. You will learn and become a stronger and happier person when you emerge from it all.
    Jan 5, 2016
    Lim Tit Meng
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