How Leaders Should Handle Making Mistakes

Mike Harden | | Solving Problems

We all make mistakes. We even benefit from them: as James Joyce wrote, “A man’s mistakes are his portals of discovery.” Unfortunately for CEOs, many of our mistakes are made in front of an audience.

Board members, employees, stakeholders, and even the media could be watching closely, scrutinizing every move. It’s public knowledge, for example that Excite’s CEO, George Bell, turned down an offer to buy Google in 2001 – even when the price was cut to $750,000. Mistake? You bet! CEOs are not immune to errors in judgment or execution.

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There are always signs that a decision is going south. Hopefully, those signs make themselves apparent during planning stages. Senior or junior executives, managers, and employees should be confident in voicing their concerns. Your team should know it is vital to catch it as soon as possible. Many CEOs will continue implementing a flawed strategy, attempting to wait it out or to avoid admitting defeat. This only makes things worse.

The key is to minimize the impact of mistakes so that when you stumble, your organization does not fall.

How Can You Minimize The Impact Of A Mistake?

Admit It. It is difficult to admit mistakes, particularly for someone in such a prominent position. Rather than come up with a hundred reasons why it wasn’t a terrible mistake or why it was someone else’s fault, set an example and be accountable. You have to admit there is a mistake before you can take corrective action.

Apologize. Don’t underestimate the power of the apology. Apologizing can be cathartic, and people need to hear it. If you make a mistake that impacts your management team, for instance, you apologize to your management team. If you have alienated the public, you issue a public apology. “I’m sorry. I won’t let it happen again. Here’s what I learned.” Notice there are no “buts,” no “I’m sorry if you were offended/hurt/angry.” “Sorry” is not an admission of weakness; if anything, it is a show of strength.

Fix It. Apologies lose their luster when they are not backed up by substantive action. Dominos’ CEO, Patrick Doyle, demonstrated this a few years back when YouTube videos of unhygienic behavior went viral, as did pictures of pizza that didn’t look good enough to eat so much as good enough to trash. Doyle not only apologized, profusely, he set out to make it right with the hungry public. His sincerity resonated with many consumers. Dominos now accounts for half of all American pizza sales, and 2013 shares are at an all-time high. People liked them better after all this because they put such a concerted effort into righting a wrong.

Take The Opportunity To Improve. When a CEO can admit, apologize, and correct mistakes, it fosters confidence both within and around an organization. People understand that mistakes happen; what they react so strongly to are attempts to blame others or cover them up.

Executive accountability is not only admirable; it filters down to every other employee in the company. If you are not willing to hold yourself accountable, no one below you will be accountable either. The best culture you can create and foster as a CEO is one in which you do not worry about holding people accountable because they do it for themselves. This culture starts at the top.

Mike Harden

Mike Harden has developed exceptional depth and breadth of knowledge over his 40+ year career as an entrepreneur, executive, teacher, mentor, and coach. Today, as one of DC’s premier Executive Coaches, Mike helps good executives become great leaders. Find Mike on Google+

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