What Do Leaders Think When They Make a Mistake?

iStock_000005924102XSmallA while back Lisa Winter wrote a terrific blog about what leaders say when they make a mistake . . . “I’m sorry.” Her blog prompted me to explore a question.  What do leaders think when they make a mistake?  When I was a kid I was deathly afraid of making mistakes.  My dad was a big, scary guy.  Maybe he wasn’t truly the tyrant I perceived him to be, but as a small kid, he was terrifying!  Even the possibility of making a mistake filled me with dread of the consequences meted out by my dear old dad.  And my first reaction upon making a mistake was to be overwhelmed with shame, embarrassed that I’d displayed my imperfection for “the world” to see, and generally resulted in a sick feeling in my stomach as I agonized over the impact to . . . me!  It was all about me, me, me.  Well, kids can be like that.

Then we grow up . . . supposedly.  When we become leaders we have more to think about than our own humiliation when a mistake occurs.  We can’t afford the luxury of wallowing in self-pity or running in fear, covering our tracks, or escaping punishment.  Our focus must be on dealing with the impact to our team and our shared goals.  There may be some social pressures to prostrate ourselves before the masses and indulge in a great deal of self-lashing, but that’s not going to help get the team and the goals back on track.

A leader who cares more about the team and their goals than managing their image will do right by the team by following these guidelines:

1.  Acknowledge what happened, take responsibility (even if it wasn’t ALL your fault!), and apologize sincerely.

2.  Assess the impact, including gathering inputs from the team and other trusted advisers.

3. Generate options, again with inputs from others as appropriate.

4.  Decide.

5.  Take right action to make it right, or at least do what you can to mitigate the downside.

Next time you make a mistake, notice how much time you spend worrying about the cost to YOU to have made that mistake.  See if you can quickly move beyond your own selfish concerns to making it right.  Regret doesn’t get the train back on the track.  The self-talk swirling around in our heads in the midst of a mistake should be “Who’s hurt?  What’s the impact?  Can I fix it?  What help do I need?  What’s Next?”  And, of course, we should always asking “What’s possible now?”

Looking in the rear view mirror is a waste of time, except a glance now and then to remember from whence we came, and learn from the experience.  Anything more endangers the journey forward.

Oh, I guess I should mention that of course there will be those who delight in punishing you or throwing your mistakes up in your face time and again.  That’s one of the prices paid for being a great leader.  Trudge onward!  The goal of leadership is not the approval of each and every one of the 6.7 billion people on this planet!

The introspective leader has no regrets, only revelations upon which to build the future.

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2 thoughts on “What Do Leaders Think When They Make a Mistake?”

  1. Anuradha (Anu) Subramanian

    Ah ! Too true. Falling flat on your face, picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, helping that poor soul you fell on, and taking the next step… one of the most difficult things to do while the whole world is watching. The mistake itself will be soon forgotten if a good solution is sought and implemented. Thx Kimberly for this great post. Onward to my next mistake….

  2. Ah, Anuradha, having worked with you I’m sure you don’t get much practice at making such mistakes! Would that we all were as gifted and tactful as you! You made my laugh out loud with your “helping that poor soul you fell on” line. Yes, so true! Collateral damage to others happens when the project leader falls down. Sometimes I wonder if any human is up to the challenge of being a proper project leader! Well, we imperfect peeps gotta do the job until super human people show up to take over the reins. Onward and sideways!

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