What should a leader do when they make a mistake?
Nobody likes to “step in it,” but leadership mistakes will happen. What you do when they occur makes all the difference.
Do these three things well, and you may end up with a stronger team than you started with.
Stepping In It
First, a word of congratulations. You messed up, really stepped in it, and that’s great!
At least it is in the sense that you can only mess things up if you are out there trying.
The only way to never make an error is to not do anything at all, and to me, that would be an even worse mistake.
Leading is like walking down a path with your team, and you’re up front.
You’re doing your best to keep the team together and moving forward, but occasionally, you’re going to step in something bad.
It could be anything – a banana peel, a wad of used gum, or something left behind by someone’s pet.
You didn’t want to step in it, but you did. Leadership mistakes happen. Now what?
However that goo got on your shoe, it’s stuck on you now. You have to deal with it.
Our natural instinct is to cover up and just keep on walking, like nothing is wrong, hoping no one will notice. But people will notice; you know they will.
So our next defense is to make excuses and shift blame. “It’s not my fault!” Maybe it really wasn’t, but if it happened on your team, it’s yours. That’s leadership – taking responsibility for your team.
The thing to do is to own it. If it happened on your team, as far as the outside world is concerned, you did it.
“I messed that up.”
Taking immediate ownership is the right anwer for lots of good reasons.
• It sets a positive example for others to follow – isn’t that how you’d want your teammates to respond?
• It reinforces an environment of honesty and trust on your team.
• It establishes a sense of personal accountability – we take responsibility for our actions and don’t try to blame others.
• It minimizes unnecessary drama.
• It allows the team to focus on finding solutions rather than finding fault.
• It positions you as the leader by demonstrating that you are willing to take responsibility for your actions and those of your team.
• It can even strengthen your relationship with your boss if you are smart about how you deliver the bad news.
So long as you are the leader, if you or someone on your team did it, own it.
Remove the Gunk
With something sticky or smelly on your shoe, the last thing you want to do is leave it there. It will attract more nasty things, it will start to smell, and mom might not let you back in the house.
Clean your shoes and do what’s necessary to make things right.
• A good start is a simple, honest apology:
• Correct the problem immediately if you can. If it will take time, share the plan and timeline with the team, and stick to it.
• Voice the values. In the process of making the correction, be vocal about what was wrong and relate it to your team’s cornerstone values. In doing so, you reinforce those values in a very powerful way.
“I made a hasty decision without checking with you guys. That’s not how I want to practice teamwork.”
Learn From It
Once your shoes are clean and you are ready to proceed, pause to think about what you can take from the experience.
• Pause to reflect – how can you keep yourself from making the same mistake?
• Discuss with your team – get their input if appropriate – what systems or processes could we change to prevent a recurrance?
• Put into practice what you have learned. The power of an apology is lost if you are continuously apologizing for the same thing.
Leadership Mistakes: The Takeaway
Sooner or later, you are going to step in it, especially as a leader. Take it in stride.
When it happens, own it, get the gunk off your shoe, and learn what lessons you can from the experience. If you act honestly and quickly, you might just end up with a stronger team than you started with.
And keep in mind that if you don’t do anything, it can be kind of like that person returning from the bathroom in the restaurant. You know the one: trailing a piece of toilet paper stuck to their shoe.
It makes you look foolish, and it will follow you everywhere.
To err is human.
To err as a leader is inevitable.
You will step in it.
It’s what you do next that matters.