OPINION | Real leaders don't run from their mistakes  

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“Accept responsibility for your actions. Be accountable for your results. Take ownership for your mistakes.” — Anonymous 

HAGÅTÑA (The Guam Daily Post) — You’re the leader and you’ve just made a big, painful mistake. What do you do now?

What are the steps to take if you want to do the right thing and maintain the confidence of your team?

It’s all about trust, the ultimate currency in building teams. Without it, you will never achieve what your organization — and you as a leader — are capable of. It won’t happen.

When words and action differ

When you were a kid, did you ever catch your mother or father in a lie — when their words said one thing, but their actions said another? When that happened, how did you feel? Did your world tilt to the side just a little, or did it turn upside down?

It’s no different when the leader of an organization is found to be lying, backpedaling from a mistake. Or worse, trying to cover up their error; and worse yet, trying to hang the blame on somebody else. People who do all these things hit the trust-losing jackpot.

Let’s be clear: If you are caught lying to your team or trying to cover up a mistake you’ve made, or attempt to deflect blame onto someone else, you are setting fire to your own house.

Nobody demands perfection

In 25 years of conducting training and leadership events, I’ve had numerous leaders confide in me how they felt they had to be seen as mistake-free and always on top of everything, or the team would lose confidence. I’ve never bought into that idea.

Sure, we all want to feel confident and secure that our leaders have a clear vision for where they want to go, maintain a firm grip on the steering wheel, and possess a good sense of direction.

More important, we want to know if they do get lost they’ll be able to figure out how to get back on course. In sports, this is called making in-game adjustments. You bet we want a leader who can do that. However, we don’t expect perfection.

Mistakes don’t ruin your reputation

Mishandling the situation after you make the mistake will. Even the more serious errors don’t have to take you down a notch in the eyes of those who rely on you.

That said, all eyes will be on you to see how you handle the situation.

Okay, you screwed up and now we all know it. What’s going to happen next? What will you do to make things right?

Five-step plan to show true leadership

  1. Admit the mistake immediately, making sure all affected parties know. The longer you wait the worse a problem can get. Own it. Don’t try to hide from the problem and don’t make excuses. Certainly never try to shift the blame to someone else. The sooner you acknowledge your error and accept the consequences, the more respect you’ll earn.
  2. Limit the damage. While figuring out how to resolve the situation, make sure to protect the organization and individuals from further harm.
  3. Say you’re sorry. If your mistake caused trouble for anyone, apologize quickly and tell them your plan to fix the problem. This is about saving a relationship.
  4. Let the final story not be about the mistake, but about what you did to recover from it. If you try to evade blame and you’re found out, that will always be what people remember.

On the other hand, if you take responsibility and then lead the effort to resolve the issue, that will become the real story — and what people emulate.

  1. Use the experience to your advantage. Mistakes become teaching moments for everybody else, as well as ongoing examples of how the organization handles its challenges.

That’s how we build future leaders

These situations play a critical role in leadership development because they teach us how to deal with issues that don’t turn out the way we hoped they would. Big mistakes, painful and sometimes expensive as they may be, offer the opportunity for advanced education.

Back to the opening quotation: accept responsibility…be accountable…take ownership. Be the example you want others to be.

Do this and you’ll be the leader others choose to follow.

Jerry Roberts presents the 2020 Live2Lead Conference, with John Maxwell and a lineup of world-class speakers. Online delivery and unique opportunities for your team are available. Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for details.

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