How Great Leaders Handle Mistakes And Get Over Them
Everyone makes mistakes — even leaders. To be human means to mess up once in a while. But the difference between great leaders and good ones lies in how they handle those mistakes and get over them.
What makes you trustworthy as a leader is not whether you make a mistake at all.
You are bound to make some because real leadership enters into the area of unknown outcome. It’s whether you are capable of owning your mistakes — and if you can handle them with honesty, integrity and grace.
Sure, some mistakes will be small, ones you can simply shrug off as minor bumps in the road.
But others will be large, ones that affect major company objectives, directly impact profitability, or put important relationships in jeopardy. It’s how you respond to these large slip-ups that will determine whether you’re a leader or a manager.
It’s tempting to think top leaders become great at what they do because they make very few mistakes.
Surprisingly, what makes leaders great is not that they stop making mistakes. What makes them great is how they handle their mistakes. Which is good news for all of us. Believe it or not, there is a way you can handle it that, in most cases, will actually increase people’s respect for you.
In leadership, mistakes are unavoidable. Even the best leaders make mistakes.
That comes with the territory when you are expected to make the calls even when you don’t always have all the information you want. What sets great leaders apart from poor ones is how they get over mistakes.
Those who are genuinely great leaders have mastered the art of handling mistakes, and we could each learn a lot from their example.
If you are managing people, you can find a few tips below on how to handle mistakes. Here are practical tips to help leaders who struggle with how to respond after they’ve made a mistake. It’s up to you to handle your own mistakes and get over them the right way. Let’s find out!
Tip #1: Own Your Mistakes
As a leader, few things are worse than realizing you made a cringe-worthy mistake. It’s embarrassing and awkward. It’s also part of life. It may be tempting to want to sweep it under the rug, but now is the time to showcase your integrity by being upfront about what happened.
The first thing that any leader should do when they make a mistake if to own up to it.
Taking ownership of a mistake means that you are taking responsibility for your actions. It also shows that you have integrity and that you are ready to do all of the things necessary to correct the mistake. Moreover, admitting your mistakes also sets an example for others. It is here in this moment that a leader can shine and that his or her followers can see what it really means to do the right thing and to be able to lead by example.
When something has gone wrong, great leaders are the first ones to admit there is a problem.
They don’t try to cover it up, they don’t blame other people, and they don’t’ wait to see if anyone notices. Take responsibility, even for those parts that you did not cause. Leaders who can own up to mistakes, errors and problems build an authentic approach with those that follow them, building trust and influence. If you are willing to admit your mistakes, then your team members or subordinates will significantly more likely to admit to their mistakes as well.
When leaders are accountable for their mistakes, they are leading by example.
This elevates employee engagement to a point where leaders — by giving them permission not to fear making the wrong decision — are empowering employees to take more initiative, knowing that they’re not always going to have the right answer. Facing the risk and potential obstacles along the way, they readily take on the responsibility, admit their mistakes if they fail, and learn from the experience.
As a leader, you set the tone for how mistakes are handled.
When leaders are honest about their shortfalls, they are essentially setting an example and providing an environment where employees do not need to fear the consequences of making the wrong decisions. With such an environment, you can empower your team to take more initiative when it comes to experimenting with something new. What others may see as a “leap of faith”, great leaders do not hesitate to put themselves on the frontline of change and accept each challenge as an opportunity.
If leaders lose their temper or blame others, they should admit their error and apologize.
Team members get frustrated when a leader holds them accountable but glosses over or refuses to take responsibility for his or her own mistakes. Keep in mind that the moment you say or do something, it becomes a fact with your employees, so it’s important that you own it and take responsibility for it. A sincere apology can make a difference in your relationship with your team and reinforce trust.
Tip #2: Break The Ice
Letting those you work with know what’s going on can feel agonizing, but it’s like pulling off a Band-Aid. Just get it over with. You may think admitting to a major blunder will create misgivings about your leadership, but it will actually increase people’s confidence in you, especially if you continue to follow the other advice in this post.
People don’t expect perfection from their leaders — they just demand their unwavering attention and bold initiative.
When leaders are honest about their shortfalls and can learn from their mistakes, they earn respect and along the way create an environment of transparency. Respected leaders take the calculated risks that others won’t when they fear too much making the wrong decision and having to face the consequences. But playing it too safe fails to earn respect; what does earn respect is real leadership not afraid to change the conversation and challenge the status quo in service to the betterment of a healthier whole.
When leaders own up and learn from their mistakes, they earn respect and along the way, create an environment of transparency.
It’s a false idea that being wrong will make others think less of you. Unfortunately, some are too caught up being concerned with how others will perceive them. Insecure leaders may be afraid of others seeing them as a weakling but not admitting their mistake makes them look worse.
Moreover, we often forget about having a sense of vulnerability in leadership.
Being honest about your mistakes not only earns you the respect of those you lead, but it also makes your leadership human. When you recognize your own errors and have the humility to share them publicly, you earn greater respect from people and help them gain confidence that they’ll survive their own mistakes.
If something goes wrong, you should be the first one to say, “Hey, I made a mistake.” Not “My bad.”
Don’t minimize it. It’s better to say, “That’s my mistake.” Our words as leaders make a difference. It’s not necessary to make it a big deal. In fact, a poised and matter of fact statement is all that is needed. Your team will love you for it, and your candid and mature disclosure increases trust. They will have more respect for you because you saw it, owned it, and spoke up.
It’s important for leaders to be as clear as possible when discussing their mistake with colleagues and team members.
If you aren’t naming it, you aren’t claiming it. Owning a mistake means that you recognize a specific error in judgment, bad decision, or improper action. Naming it demonstrates reflection, analysis, growth — and humility. Don’t be afraid to process the issue and to communicate in the most transparent way possible. Team members will appreciate the candor and will be more committed to their leader as a result.
Tip #3: Admit Your Wrong
An inability to perceive and admit mistakes is not at all a strength, but a weakness — and in a leader, it’s blind and dangerous. When an individual repetitively pushes back on all evidence and is simply unable to admit he or she is wrong, it’s psychological rigidity.
Great leaders apologize and take the lead in accepting responsibility for problems.
They don’t try to pass the problem off on someone else. Even if you didn’t directly cause the problem or the mistake wasn’t specifically yours, as a leader, you must be accountable for what happens below you. Passing the buck makes you look like you’re avoiding the problem.
If the mistake that you made as a leader negatively impacts other people then it’s important to take the time to apologize.
Don’t just send a short apology through email, as this can be seen as being insincere. For an apology to have the effect that is desired, it needs to be sincere and it needs to come from your heart. It’s important to be specific with your apology, this goes hand-in-hand with admitting your mistake. By being specific and by stating how he will rectify the situation, you are showing the other person that you care and that you understand the impact that you had on them and the organization.
When leaders admit to making mistakes — creating an opportunity to earn respect, strengthen their teams and lead by example — it ultimately builds a culture of trust.
By being answerable for the problem and showing humility in expressing regret that it happened, you demonstrate your strength and authority as a leader. However, there is no need to publically beat yourself up. As long as you have fully owned and explained the problem, don’t make things more awkward by engaging in self-loathing. Put your effort into finding a solution to fix the problem.
OK, maybe you screwed up. It’s up to you to apologize.
Maybe you gave your staff member the wrong lead, and it’s caused him to make a mistake too. It all snowballed from something that you’ve done. As the boss, the right thing to do is to take the blame from the higher ups, from peers and publicly acknowledge that it was your fault. The keyword here is publicly. Your employee will commend your leadership skills if you don’t throw him or her under the bus, even if you could’ve just as easily passed the blame to him.
I’m not saying you should apologize all the time but when you are really wrong.
Can you be big enough as a leader to admit your mistakes, take ownership and learn from it? Sometimes, It does require a bit of taking a humble pill to be big enough to say, “I messed up and I’m going to do better next time.” So my question is, what kind of culture are you trying to create? Are you willing to have the courage, as a leader, to stand up when you’ve made a mistake, look people in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry’? so that you can create a culture that is safe for people to take risks, to make mistakes, innovate, and to learn and move forward.
Tip #4: Don't Minimize
Being a successful leader doesn’t mean that you don’t have any problems. Rather, it means that you know how to solve problems effectively as they arise. And in case of you did mistakes, it’s up to you for facing them and taking them seriously, as a whole. Remember: the devil lies in the details.
If you own the seriousness of a situation, other people won’t have to.
A true and complete remedy for the problem won’t be found until you know the total damage. This is why it’s crucial you don’t minimize the problem or downplay its seriousness. Having to come back and confess that a problem was actually much bigger than you let on will erase the credibility you were beginning to rebuild.
Come clean by stating the full extent of the problem.
That way, everyone will be on the same page and you can come up with a plan to handle it. If you cover it up, sooner or later the bigger issue will become apparent. If anything, you want to overstate potential difficulties. Better to have overemphasized a problem and have it turn out to be less of an issue than make light of it, only to have it blow up in your face.
Trying to minimize the challenge does not make it any easier to tackle or solve.
Belittling the problem is worse than hiding it because you are being dishonest about how it could affect other people. Remember the problem is as huge as others perceive it and presenting a different angle won’t change their mind. The problem is as big as it has magnified in their mindset.
Sadly, many young leaders find it tempting to veer away from uncomfortable problems.
Whether they mean to or not, their attitude minimizes the urgency of correcting mistakes. Successful leaders accept that problems are unavoidable and must be dealt with to keep it from festering. When problems go unaddressed, they will only intensify over time. Successful leaders tackle problems head on. They know it’s best to address them quickly, when the situation is fresh.
The inability to be direct when there’s a problem leads to nowhere.
Many people want so badly to be liked, or are so afraid of hurting others, that they find it difficult to say anything negative. They may be reluctant to tell someone he’s not doing his job adequately, for instance. Unfortunately, by letting these things go, they only make them worse, which makes them still harder to address. It’s essential to learn when firmness is necessary, and to learn how to exercise it.
Tip #5: Fix The Problem
Dive in deep to fix the mistake. Cosmetic work that is just enough to cover the surface doesn’t really fix the problem. Solutions that last require more than veneer touch up. Understanding what went wrong and the difference between, for example, a system failure or human error is essential.
Great leaders offer ways to understand how and why a mistake was made and ways to fix the problem.
You need to figure out what happened and offer as much information and data as you can to achieve a complete diagnosis of the problem. Be upfront, and communicate any insights you have and any countermeasures you believe could help. This is also an opportunity to reframe the problem.
The more you know about what happened and why; the better you will be able to devise the right solution or make the right changes in the future.
Giving a solution without all the information is neither helpful nor honest, so take the time to figure out the full story before trying to implement a solution. This is not about finding blame, it’s about an honest review to implement the best chance to deal with the problem.
Mistakes are often symptomatic of a greater problem that needs to be addressed.
Once leaders understand why the mistake happened, they can create a process to help avoid similar errors in the future. Some mistakes aren’t as cut and dried as forgetting to tell the team that a deadline changed or transposing a number in a balance sheet. Some are more difficult to pinpoint, such as allowing confusion to rule on a team, running unfocused or unproductive meetings, making poor hiring and firing decisions, or failing to give and receive feedback.
Part of owning an issue is demonstrating you are doing everything in your power to diagnose and remedy the situation.
Rarely will you have all the information you need to make a full diagnosis when a problem emerges, but bring everything you have to the table every time. Again, this will increase your confidence as a leader in the fact that you are on it. Again, if your team knows you were the first to come forward, you understand the problem, you’re owning it and you’re working on it, his or her confidence in you rises, even though you’ve made a mistake.
Now is also the time to begin gathering input and advice from others so you can come up with a solution, and ensure that anyone who is impacted understands the corrective actions being taken.
Great leaders realize that they do not have all the answers and that others on their team have valuable insights. While you accept responsibility as a leader, you can still be open to suggestions from your team. The same is true for us all. People around you have perspectives and experiences different from yours, so do not be afraid to ask for advice or input on how to solve your challenge. The approach of being genuine here is important. Providing lip-service and wanting to be seen to be doing the “right thing” will ultimately fail.
Tip #6: Break The Loop
We all make mistakes. The question is whether you spend the effort to gain valuable insight from your misstep. Failure is educational, and even necessary in many ways, but that doesn’t mean you want to repeat the same mistake over and over.
In addition to being a personal learning opportunity, your mistakes as a leader can be used to teach others as well.
Whether your team members or subordinates witness your mistake or if they hear about it and the story, it gives them an opportunity to learn what not to do or how to do things better. this is very similar to fathers who use stories from their childhood to teach their children how to survive in society today. Mistakes are one of the greatest teachers in the world.
The most important role of a leader regarding mistakes is to create a culture where mistakes are prevented and people can learn from best practices and the mistakes of others.
Those leaders invest their time and money into selection process to filter out the right talents and into supporting them to get well prepared for their future roles. They also have managers who coach people daily to perform up to their potential. In these organizations, you can see project teams involved in discussions where the team reflects on past projects and brainstorms about future opportunities. And most importantly, you see people helping each other get better by sharing information about best practices and lessons learned.
When problems are resolved, leaders use that opportunity to share the lessons learned with others.
Leaders want to make learning opportunities for everyone else, too, so they make a point to share their newfound understanding. When you see a friend struggling with a problem that you have some experience with, be sure to let them know what you have learned from your mistakes, too. Leaders look for coachable moments.
Leaders who adopt a growth mindset know that mistakes are part of the process.
They and their teams can learn from blunders and slip-ups. Admitting to mistakes can set the stage for an open dialogue with employees and team members, Perkins says. It also acknowledges that no one is infallible. After analyzing what went wrong and why, leaders should embrace the parts of the analysis that can help them grow and develop.
We can ignore and cover our mistakes, or we can choose to learn from them and use them as lessons.
None of us would ever choose to make a mistake. But in adjusting how we think about our mistakes, we can turn them into something better. Remember mistakes are proof that you are trying. As leaders, we establish our character, demonstrate our values, and set a powerful example for others with how we handle our own mistakes.
Tip #7: Don't Dwell on The Past
You’ve done your best to remedy the situation and ensure it won’t happen again. You’ve learned your lesson, and you’ve sought the advice of those you trust. Now it’s time to make peace with it, get your head in the game and get back to business.
Your self-confidence may have taken a hit through all this, and you may feel uncertain and overly cautious about moving forward.
But don’t let yourself fall into a slump. Don’t let fear and self-doubt hold you back. What happened is done. The sooner you jump back in, the sooner you can put those valuable lessons to work. Giving yourself a little distance will help you put the mistake into perspective. Time to move on and focus on the future.
It’s imperative that you don’t let mistakes hold you back and prevent you from achieving your goals and your mission.
Once you admitted your mistake, apologized for it, rectified it, and learned from it, then it’s time to move on and move forward. don’t dwell on the past or on the sinking feeling of failure in your gut that often comes with making mistakes. For leaders, making mistakes is essentially the name of the game. Anyone building a new business is going to make many mistakes. It’s important to learn from them and then move on.
What matters the most is the ability to acknowledge your mistakes cleanly without covering them up, displacing blame or overly internalizing and dramatizing the mistake.
Beyond owning the mistake, leadership actions are mitigating the damage, learning from your mistakes, openly working with your team to address solutions, helping others to avoid the same mistake and moving onwards. A mistake is a mistake. The process of navigating the mistake can be a stepping stone towards greater trust, respect and admiration as a leader. As with anything, it’s how you handle it that makes the difference.
Don’t beat yourself up and don’t dwell on the mistake.
Maintain a positive attitude and focus on what you can take away from it. Even more importantly, spend your time and energy on moving forward. Your colleagues will appreciate it, because they’ve made plenty of mistakes, too. It’s easy to get stuck in a vicious cycle of punishing yourself for committing an error — but when you do that, you’re living in the past and filling your brain with ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts). Once you’ve learned the lesson, take a deep breath in, and with the exhale, let it go.
To successful leaders, failure isn’t failure; it’s a lesson to grow and get better.
If you don’t want to make mistakes, lock yourself in your house and watch TV all day. Assuming you would like to achieve something with your life, accept (and to an extent, embrace) failure. It’s there to teach you, so don’t dwell on it or play the victim. Don’t blame yourself on anyone else. Own it, and then get back to work.
When you are out in front and taking new territory, missteps are part of the journey. If you aren’t making mistakes, you probably aren’t leading. Leaders who try to cover up, justify or minimize their mistakes often struggle with deeper issues.
The best leaders don’t become less trustworthy when they make a mistake. They become more trusted — precisely because of how they owned and managed the process.
Leaders get to be so because they realize that someone must be in charge and accept responsibility for when things go well and when mistakes happen. The same is true for you in your own life. Be the leader of your happiness, and start handling mistakes like a boss!
Leaders know that all decisions carry risk and therefore come with potential obstacles that can sometimes derail progress.
But when bad stuff happens, what separates the leaders from the managers are three things. Leaders readily take responsibility for what went wrong, actively work to fix the immediate problem and then deliberately look for ways to learn from the experience.
As a leader, the knowledge that mistakes are going to be made presents a tremendous opportunity, empowerment, and responsibility.
How you respond to them is critical because everyone is going to be listening to see how you, the leader, responds. If you respond well, while holding accountability, I believe you’ll be blown away by how much that team member continues to want to participate in your world of progress with intent. This is critical to a healthy culture and to building a fast-growing organization.
It is often thanks to leaders who handle mistakes in ways described above and model these behaviors for others that organizations are set up for growth.
It can be tough to get past mistakes but the way you handle it can really make or break you as a leader. It’s not how we handle the good times that shows the best of us, it’s how we handle the tough times. What additional tips do you have for leaders to handle mistakes? Feel free to leave a comment below!