What To Do When You Mess Up As a Leader

by | Oct 13, 2020

I remember the nasty feeling clearly. I had this wretched pit in my stomach as I sat there at the head of the table. I was their new leader, eager to earn their trust and inspire them to follow me… and I had just flubbed big-time.

I screwed up MemesSee, we had a critical call with an angry client scheduled for that morning. But 11:00 rolled around, and I wasn’t anywhere to be found. I left my client services team high and dry.

It wasn’t intentional—for some reason, the call never made it onto my calendar—but the impact was just the same.

They needed me, and I wasn’t there.

I had talked a big game about wanting to be on every call with a dissatisfied customer to demonstrate that we were giving them the attention they deserved, but then I didn’t show up. And in failing to do so, I inadvertently sent a signal to the client that they weren’t worth my time or attention.

So there I sat, at our leadership team meeting that afternoon. Standing at the proverbial fork-in-the-road… with egg dripping down my face.

I could take the left branch, where I’d chalk my blunder up to a simple calendaring mistake, maybe offer a half-hearted, sheepish apology, then quickly shift gears to the meeting agenda in an attempt to evade the discomfort.

Or I could go right: own up to my mistake fully—irrespective of the cause—and model the humble leadership that I preached.

What did I do? Embarrassingly, I did nothing at all. But resorted to sending a carefully crafted email to the team later that evening.

This was weak leadership, and inadvertently sent a signal to the team that “we don’t talk about our screw-ups.”

You can imagine what kind of negative effect this can have on a leadership culture.

Reflecting on this has left me with perhaps one of the most important lessons a leader can learn: how we respond in moments like this—where we failed our team—can have a far-reaching ripple effect.

We shouldn’t be ashamed for making mistakes. It happens to the best of us. But what matters most is how we respond. How we recover.

If you want to build a culture that openly talks about failures, and learns from them… a culture where people top-to-bottom embrace a strong sense of accountability… leaders have to go first.

So what do we do in situations where we messed up as leaders? We call on three of the most simple, but important words a leader can use:

I.

Messed.

Up.

I messed up.

And be specific about what you messed up.

When we say this, it implicitly sends a whole host of important messages to our team.

It signals that you are courageous. That you are willing to subordinate your own need for safety in order to do right by the team. It signals humility. It invites learning.

And if you want to be a learning organization—one of the most important imperatives for companies to stay competitive in today’s fast-moving marketplace—you have to harvest failures and mistakes for the learning. There is no other way.

Learn to say “I messed up. I’m sorry.”

And if you haven’t, in fact, been in a position where you’ve messed something up… you probably aren’t aiming high enough, or going big enough.

Here are 3 pro-tips when it comes to taking ownership for mistakes as a leader:

 

ProTip #1: Acknowledge your mistake immediately. Don’t let it linger unaddressed. This will quickly stink up your team culture.

 

ProTip #2: In moments when you have screwed up, it is important to acknowledge the impact that it had on others. In these moments, too often, we get preoccupied with our own feelings of shame or discomfort. But people want to know that you get how you made them feel.

You may say something like this:

“Jamie. I screwed up. I missed that really important client call that you were counting on me to be at, and I’m guessing that the impact it had was that it let you down, and compromised our relationship with our client. I’m sorry.

When I put myself in your shoes, I’d probably feel pretty disappointed and upset. I want you to know that I recognize that, and want to take ownership for making you feel that way.”

 

ProTip #3: Learn from it and move on.

Once you’ve taken the time to reflect, check-in with your team on the impact that your blunder had on them, and apologize… it is time to bottle up the learning, and move on.

Ruminating can exacerbate the negative stink that mistakes create in a culture.

First, get clear on what went wrong, and what you’re going to do about it.

Then, it is time to make that known to your team. You can say:

“What I’m taking from my mistake is ________, and my commitment to you is _______.”

And be prepared to follow through on your commitment. Actions speak far louder than words.

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