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When Leaders Make Mistakes: 3 Tips to Build Leadership Resilience

October 25, 2019


Even the best leaders are not immune to making mistakes. Anyone who has held any kind of job knows this and has experienced it before. How leaders handle their mistakes is what is crucial, though. I once had a boss who could do no wrong but was great at pointing out all the things I did incorrectly. Although I wasn’t very aware of it at the time, this was one of the reasons working with this person was so demotivating 

Can you think of a time when a leader in your organization made a mistake and then admitted it, and even went so far as to try to correct it? This type of behavior can have a big impact, even if the mistake was relatively small. As a leader, handling mistakes in an appropriate way can help build your leadership resilience and promote productive behavior. So if you’re a leader and you do something wrong, what should you do? 

  1. Admit it was your fault. Whether it’s in person, over email, or on the phone, start by saying you were wrong. And keep it simple. Don’t go into a lot of detail about why you did what you did. It’s not time to do that yet. And definitely don’t get defensive and end up shifting the blame on someone else. We’ve all been in situations where someone starts out talking like they’re going to take responsibility, but ends up slyly blaming someone else for their mistake. It feels disingenuous and leaves people wondering why you started out sounding like you were admitting to something when you weren’t. 

  2. Explain what you’ll do differently next time. This is the place to go into details, depending on the level and impact of the mistake. I had a situation once where I was leading a team of people and we had to put together a complex and detailed annual report. The success of the report depended on the work of the team, but I was ultimately responsible. The process to produce the report did not go smoothly, and I felt terribly about it but didn’t know exactly what to do. My boss suggested that I hold an “After Action Meeting” with my team to go through the things that went wrong. During the meeting, we collaboratively discussed what should have happened, what actually happened, and what we would do the next time. Since it was my fault the process hadn’t gone well, I made sure to take ownership over what I would do differently in the future. 

  3. Follow through on your promise. It’s great to do the first two steps, and people will appreciate you for doing them. But if you don’t make good on what you said you’d do, those positive effects can be undone. Your credibility is on the line, and people will remember what you said you would do. 

Owning up to your mistakes as a leader creates a culture of accountability. Your team will appreciate that they are allowed to get things wrong sometimes as long as they take responsibility for their actions and work to improve their performance and behavior. And they will feel freer to be honest with you and with each other.  

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Rose Keith Rose Keith is a former Consultant with PSI. Rose managed selection process implementation projects and worked with clients to ensure that these processes were working well. She also managed, developed, and delivered training programs, both externally and within PSI.