When Leaders Make Mistakes – Leading With Maturity
The art of the apology is one that has had a lifetime of practice given that it has a well stocked and steady stream of imperfect humans making error after error. The relationships of family, marriage, work, business, and society provide numerous opportunities to offend, enrage, sadden, or otherwise damage the connection. It could be between a business and consumers, a husband and wife, or a boss and an employee. Even pets have long memories. For someone in a leadership position, the first hurdle to overcome is the one that keeps a boss from apologizing to someone they direct and supervise. The hurdle here is the perception that acknowledging a mistake to a subordinate will somehow damage your position or otherwise lessen your authority to perform your job.
John Baldoni’s excellent blog had a recent topic on whether showing vulnerability was acceptable for a leader. The short answer is, of course. Admitting errors and accepting consequences are character choices that should be in the tool box of every leader. The infamous blanket statement “if I have offended someone…” is one of the greatest non-apologies ever made, and is still going strong. If you are apologizing, of course you offended someone. As Baldoni writes, “a manager unaware of a mistake is worse than one who is aware and afraid to admit it”.
In today’s world, the viral potential of a mistake cannot be underestimated. Most Fortune 500 companies employ legions of people as image SWAT teams to respond in times of crisis. Most recently, Forbes published an article on how a CEO can wreck a major viable brand name in one interview, when a 2006 article was resurrected online in 2013, in the age of Twitter and Facebook, and then wreck it further during the response.
Terry Starbrucker describes contrition as one of the 10 leadership acts you shouldn’t have to think about. Kevin Eikenberry described 10 phrases every leader should use, and numbers 1 through 3 are “I made a mistake. I was wrong. I am sorry.”
Bottom line – we are in the trust business. Leadership, teamwork, and sharing a mission, are all about trusting the people you walk with. Lose that and you are now in free fall mode. You may recover, but only if granted the opportunity by those you failed. Play it straight, and tell it straight.