Issue Number 22: The Best Leaders Admit Their Mistakes

Admitting your mistakes is risky, but it is a great example of professional, principled behavior. The key is to avoid personalizing both success and failure. If you believe you succeed because you are superior to others, it follows that you fail because you are inferior to others. Each success you have and each mistake you make provides evidence of your self-worth. Who wants to live like that?

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is being afraid to make a mistake. You want to maintain a record of accomplishment. You don’t want to give any ammunition to those who may not have your best interests in mind. And you want to set an example for others. It is a sticky situation.

The liberating truth is – all of us make mistakes, so join the fun!

My mother, perhaps like yours, never read a book on raising children, but she could have written a great one. I remember her explaining to me many times when I misbehaved (many, many times), that I was not being punished because I was a bad boy, but because I did something wrong. She always emphasized that I was a good boy who made a bad decision, and she loved me just as much as ever. The important thing was to learn from it and not repeat it.

After I had paid the price (usually staying in my room for a while), she gave me a hug, and sent me off to play. And that was the end of it. She helped me understand my self-worth was not tied to an occasional lapse in judgment. I think those early life lessons made it a lot easier for me to admit my mistakes, learn from them, and move on.

Some people are so afraid to admit mistakes they cover them up or, worse yet, underachieve as a way of life. A former colleague who took great pride in staying below the radar used to say: “You can’t do anything wrong if you don’t do anything at all.” Strangely enough, he did not advance very far in his career.
Another colleague had a more enlightened view. People who reported to her were allowed to make occasional mistakes as long as they (1) were doing their best, (2) were well-intentioned, and (3) did not repeat the mistake. Her staff members were freed from the pressure to always be right. As a result morale was high and both productivity and creativity soared.

By admitting your mistakes you send a message of tolerance and accountability that liberates people. It encourages them to take risks, it allows them to move from a defensive crouch to a proactive posture, and it helps them explore and realize their potential.

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