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Recovering From Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes and does things the wrong way sometimes. Problem is, too often we engage in the old Watergate syndrome: We try to cover up, and in the process make things worse. Mistakes and wrong choices WILL happen and they can lead to hurt feelings, poor business moves, broken relationships, and even worse. While every leader is bound to blow it from time to time, what you do after the error is what really matters. You cannot be a great leader unless you prove that you are strong enough and brave enough to be accountable for your actions and those of your team.

Why is it important to own up to your mistakes as a leader? If you hold yourself accountable promptly, you will…

  • Gain the confidence of your team and constituents.

  • Earn respect.

  • Set an example for the rest to follow.

  • Help others lose their fear of accountability.

So how do you properly own up to your mistakes? Honestly, it will always feel awkward to begin, but everything will only get better as you do.

  • Be the first to break the news. Don’t try to hide or make people wonder when it’s going to come up. Man up and tell it.

  • Truly own the mistake. The people around you likely already know what happened. It’s okay to be human and make a mistake, but not okay to ignore it or gloss over it. It is demoralizing to everyone. The worst thing leaders can do is to minimize their mistake, ignore it, or try to blame it on others. Just the facts.

  • Apologize for your mistake. Not the “half apology” that starts out with “I’m sorry” and ends with “but you…” It doesn't have to be a big deal—simply acknowledge your responsibility, say how sorry you are, and move on. Insecure leaders may be afraid of looking weak, but not owning and apologizing costs them respect. In leadership, vulnerability is strength. Say you are sorry and mean it.

  • Manage your emotions. It’s normal to feel embarrassed, frustrated, ashamed, and even defensive. But if those emotions come through, everyone loses.

  • Determine why the mistake was made. Before leaders talk with staff, they should take time to reflect on their mistake, identifying what it was and how it happened

  • Get input. Be open to new information. Instead of insisting on being right or blaming others for an error, leaders should consider alternative viewpoints and be willing to accept new information, even if it contradicts their current beliefs. Make sure there are no gaps in your thinking or information.

  • Communicate clearly. It’s important to be as clear as possible when discussing their mistakes. Before meeting with staff, they should know exactly what they want to say.

  • Explain how you plan to fix the problem. This is a crucial part of taking responsibility for your actions or those of your team. This step tells others that you are aware of your error and are committed to making things right.

  • Do what you say you will do. If you fail to come through on your promises, you will lose the respect and confidence others have in your ability to lead.

  • Follow up quickly and often. Daily, evenly hourly, if you need to. Make sure the right things are happening. Stay on it until it is fully resolved.

  • Check to see if it was a one-time deal, or a systems problem. Be courageous enough to uncover and deal with the actual underlying issue if there is one.

  • Learn from your mistakes. Experience is a great, and sometimes painful, teacher. Take this opportunity to reflect on what went wrong so that you don’t repeat the same mistake twice. Leaders who adopt a growth mindset know that mistakes are part of the process. Once you learn from your mistakes, don't repeat them. As the old saying goes, when you repeat a mistake it is not a mistake anymore but a decision.

  • Teach others from your mistakes. When you make mistakes, make a point of teaching others what you've learned. Doing so builds connection and trust. The best leaders are the great teachers, coaches, and guides who show us the way after they have been down that path.

Success is connected with action. Successful people keep moving; they make mistakes but don't quit. Learn to use failure as a steppingstone away from the past. You don't forget your mistake, but you don't dwell on it or let it get you down. Get up and keep moving.

Like all of us, you're bound to make mistakes. But when you handle them well, they can help you be a better leader and a better person.

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