Disqualified by One Second

Recently Mark found out he was disqualified from the final of the 2020 Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking because his semi-final speech went overtime by one second. One second! I could not believe it. Mark handled it with more maturity than I would have. He took full responsibility for his failure to stay within the time requirement. He even wrote down two pages of learnings after he found out.

This reminded me of a similar experience I had in high school. I was competing at a state athletics tournament as part of a mixed medley relay team. I was the second last runner and had to run the 300m leg. We had a terrible start to the race. Our second runner was extremely slow. We were 15 metres behind by the time I got the baton. In fact, the second runner was so slow that he could not catch me in my startup run during the transition – I even had to stop completely to let him catch up.

When I eventually got the baton I ran harder than I’d ever run before. I managed to close the gap to 10 metres but it looked like a lost cause. The last runner had 400m to try catch up. Our last runner poured his heart and soul into the race. He was slowly catching up. As he reached the 200m mark he had caught up with the pack. As he came down the final straight he was gaining on the leader. With five metres to go he took the lead. We won the race!

Our last runner collapsed in exhaustion. Our team ran to embrace him. We were ecstatic! This was the biggest comeback of the tournament. It was the biggest comeback of our lives.

Then the announcement come over the PA: we were disqualified. I had committed a foul during my handover with the second runner. My foot was 5cm over the line when I received the baton. I can still remember the look of disappointment (almost despair) of our final runner when we were disqualified. I was so ashamed. I wanted the earth to swallow me.

My first response was to blame the second runner who ran too slow to catch me during the transition – but I stopped myself. Instead I blamed the officials for not letting it slide. We won by more than 5cm. The foul had no impact on the outcome of the race! I had not intended to cheat. It was an accident. Couldn’t they extend some grace?

This was a valuable lesson that I had the benefit of learning early in my life. My intentions don’t matter when I make a mistake. I will be judged by my actions, not my intentions. I either did or did not. I either succeeded or failed. The margin does not matter. My excuses don’t matter.

Sure, I can keep blaming the officials but will that change the outcome? All it does is let me off the hook. It lets me move my shame elsewhere so that I’m not to blame. Though that might make me feel better, that approach won’t allow me to get better. It ignores the part I played in the outcome (and I had the biggest part to play).

If I ignore the part I played, then I lose the only power I have over the situation: my own actions. If it was all the second runner’s fault for being slow and the officials’ fault for being pedantic about the rules then there is nothing I can do about it. This makes me powerless. It means I cannot do better next time and I am always at the mercy of external forces or other people. Is this a helpful way to live? I think not.

Taking ownership is important for personal growth, but it’s even more important in teams and relationships. When we don’t take ownership of our contribution to a problem it results in a blame game. Conflicts escalate. Everyone points the finger at someone else. In the end everyone is angry and feel justified in their innocence – and no problems ever get solved.

Why are we scared to take responsibility for our actions? We think that people will respect us less if we admit that we made a mistake. In reality the opposite is true. When someone takes responsibility for their actions with no excuses we actually gain respect for that person. Just think back to the last political leader who blamed someone else for their mistakes. Our respect for them diminished.

Taking ownership diffuses situations. Once someone owns the problem we stop looking for people to blame because we don’t have to protect our ego any more. We are less defensive. We’re more willing to admit our own contribution to the problem. Instead of wasting time and effort to find someone to blame, we can start working out how to avoid this from happening again. But it needs someone to go first.

The more ownership you take, the more you enlarge your circle of influence. When you take ownership of problems you start to see how you could have influenced outcomes. You start to realise that you had more influence over the outcome than you realised. Instead of blaming the other person for not submitting a critical report on time, you learn to ask yourself what you could have done to avoid the outcome. Could I have reminded them of the importance of the task? Could I have offered to help them? Could I have shared some of my experience? Could I have made sure they had everything they needed to do the task? As you start asking yourself these types of questions your influence expands because you find ways of affecting the outcomes that you did not realise you had in your control. 

Next time you catch yourself about to make an excuse, stop yourself. Instead, have the courage to own your actions. Have the courage to go first. Hold your head high, own your mistakes and learn from them. Watch how your effectiveness increases at work and at home.

About the author

Divan Gradwell is co-host and producer of the Candour Communication Podcast where we discuss interpersonal communication and all the human stuff that gets in the way.