When You Make a Mistake…

Like it or not, we’ve all made our share of mistakes. It’s what we do next that determines our success as a leader.


Image courtesy of Byrne Reese on Flickr

Early in my career, I made a big mistake with a volunteer. He had done some things which forced the Board chair to remove him from his post, and it was my job to implement this action. However, the way I chose to do it was publicly disrespectful of the many years of service this gentleman had provided my organization. He was so offended that he responded in public.

When confronted with the outrage of the offended volunteer and his friends, I doubled-down, got hot-headed and defensive, and started to further escalate the situation.

Thankfully, someone pulled me aside and said, “You may be in the right, but your attitude and approach are putting you in the wrong.”

This was a wake-up call for me. I was able to step back and get some perspective. I called the volunteer with hat in hand and then issued a public apology.

As leaders, we are called upon to make decisions everyday. Some of those decisions are bound to be wrong. Great leaders own their mistakes, acknowledge them without defense, and focus on how to move things in a positive direction. Poor leaders try to cover up their mistakes, obfuscate the situation, and blame others.

My dad tells a great story: My grandfather, every time he made a mistake, would say, “Hmm, first mistake I ever made in my life!” I like to think of him saying it several times a day.

What I hear him acknowledging — granted, in a humorous way — is that he had made a mistake, and that it happens all the time.

So the next time you make a mistake, try this simple four-part response:

  1. Own it. Call it a mistake and don’t hide from it. Show others that it’s OK to acknowledge that something didn’t go as planned.
  2. Apologize for it. Depending on the circumstances, someone may have been wronged or otherwise gotten the short end of the deal. So tell them you’re sorry you caused it. And don’t beat around the bush — a heartfelt “I’m sorry” can go a long way.
  3. Make a plan. There’s nothing you can do to undo a mistake. All you can do is choose to improve the situation from where it is now. You might still be able to fix it, or you might just have to promise yourself and others that you’ve learned from it and will do better next time.
  4. Move on. Beating yourself up won’t do any good. Call it water under the bridge and focus your energies on being a great leader for whatever comes up next.

So get out there and be awesome. And if you trip along the way, it’s all good. We’ll still follow you… as long as you don’t say it was the sidewalk’s fault.

Question: How sure are you that you own your mistakes? Please leave a comment below and help me get more readers by clicking any of the share buttons below. Thanks!

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