by Steve Adubato, PhD
One of the most important attributes of a leader is the ability to admit his or her mistakes. Since leaders are faced with so many problems and challenges and are in a position to make countless decisions (or avoid them) things inevitably go wrong. The sign of a superior leader is not that he avoids making mistakes, it’s that when he does, he learns from them.
That’s why it was so interesting that President Bush was either unable or unwilling to acknowledge a singe mistake he has made in office. The first time he was asked publicly about his mistakes was at his last press conference. In response, the president appeared to hesitate and then said he wished he were given that question beforehand. He strained a bit more and added that he was sure he could come up with one mistake, but that it was difficult to do under the bright lights and the pressure of the situation. Then, last month, the president was asked by a citizen in one of the debates the exact same question. Again, he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) acknowledge a singe mistake.
The issue here is not about the presidential campaign. That’s over. Rather, it is about the question of leadership and how people in positions of power communicate about their errors in judgment or miscalculations and what they (and their team) can take from them. The issue is about how a leader can use the same mistake as an opportunity to show both vulnerability and strength at the same time.
The irony is that many leaders may see admitting a mistake as a sign of weakness. Yet, many times the opposite is the case. Admitting our errors has the potential to strengthen our relationships with workplace colleagues and other stakeholders. According to Mike Krzyzewski, Duke University basketball coach and author of the book, “Leading with the Heart,” “When a leader makes a mistake and doesn’t admit it, he is seen as arrogant and untrustworthy. And ‘untrustworthy’ is the last thing a leader wants to be.”
That’s why Krzyzewski and other leaders are so willing to admit their mistakes. They understand that there is a heavy price to pay when you are seen as reluctant to do so. It’s not as hard as you think it is. Admitting your mistakes communicates in a powerful way that you believe in the relationships you’ve developed. People around you need to know that you are human. They need to know you have the trust in them and in your own leadership to say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t handle XYZ well. I take full responsibility. Here’s what we need to do to get things right and back on track…”
Or, conversely say, “I know there is a lot of finger pointing going on about why we didn’t meet ABC goal, but I’m the team leader, so I take responsibility. But as a team, we will get this right. So, Jim, what one thing do you believe we need to do to improve the odds that we meet our goal next quarter?” The constant is acknowledging responsibility. The variable is whether you give clear direction on how to proceed or ask for input from others.
What is so hard about communicating in this fashion? Is there any risk to doing it? Sure. But there is a much greater risk in not acknowledging that key people both within and outside your organization perceive that you should be taking responsibility for a particular mistake.
So ask yourself, “do I acknowledge my professional mistakes?” If not, then start doing it—before it’s too late. Then observe the reaction you get from others.