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A Resilient Leader: Why admitting your mistakes can make you a better leader

Great leaders see mistakes as an opportunity to learn and overcome, rather than a setback. It’s a worthwhile endevour, and a valuable way to demonstrate the qualities that will make you a leader to trust. It should help position you to make the tough decisions and shape you as a leader, determined to come back even stronger.

Often the path to being a successful leader will not be smooth. We all make mistakes. That much is clear. We might not all make the cataclysmic errors that bring down companies, but we will all get things wrong, to some degree, this week or next. But it’s what you do with failure and how you use it to propel you in a positive way, is the key factor that defines your character; both at the individual and the organizational level.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said,

“We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

Many companies state in their strategy that it's their ambition to be a supportive learning organization, but not all of them acknowledge that dealing with errors is a crucial factor in this. The learning potential that errors provide cannot be overlooked. 

Good lessons: We learn more from failure than success.

“Error culture is learning culture,” explains Silvia Eggenweiller, Odgers Berndtson Partner, “Talking about a ‘learning culture’ also has a much more positive connotation as a phrase.”

“Our whole wealth of experience consists of the mistakes we have made. We only become really good at something if we keep trying things out along the way, and sometimes fail ourselves. Covering up mistakes, on the other hand, is usually much more expensive on balance than cultivating a good culture of mistakes.”

We should look at failure for what it is: a chance to reevaluate, reexamine and ultimately come back stronger from it. It’s a priceless possibility to increase the learning ability of an organisation.

Research shows that it is highly beneficial for organizations to instill an error management culture, with several positive outcomes. The ethical behavior of employees is enhanced, whilst the quality of service to customers and the performance of the company are both improved.

Hard to admit

But for many, the first part of this process, admitting mistakes isn’t easy. Of course, none of us like doing so, and bosses can often be particularly fearful. Aren’t they supposed to be the ones who know better, aren’t they supposed to be in their position, for precisely that reason?

67% of people hate admitting when they’re wrong. Though this is quite a large percentage, this is not entirely surprising when you consider that many corporate cultures around the world are naturally rule-oriented, with internalized controls, objectivism and planning all to the fore. It is about minimizing error rather than a person-oriented culture based on trial and error. Little wonder that both individuals and giant corporates would rather hide, or at least minimize a mistake, than admit it and be open about learning from it.

The eyes are on you

“Dealing well with your own mistakes, when all eyes are on you, is an important part of your behavior and character, and sets the tone for others to emulate”, states Klaus Hansen, Odgers Berndtson Partner. 

Middle and senior management play an important role in creating an error management, or put more positively, learning culture.

Their conduct and their reactions are crucial for how errors are regarded on a company level in the organization. A company can’t innovate a breakthrough product, or strengthen a process, if it’s not willing to encourage risk-taking and learn from subsequent mistakes.

How should you demonstrate great leadership when you make a mistake?

Firstly, don’t shift the blame onto others, take responsibility yourself. And do it early, don’t wait until it’s forced out of you. The sooner you do it, the sooner you can learn and move on. Be sincere, and work to leverage it into a strength to use to your advantage.

An insecure and weak leader will hate admitting that anything has gone wrong and will try to spin the situation to their advantage. Themselves, nor their peers will learn anything from this. A sure way to lose the respect of your team and your fellow leaders.

Increasingly, and particularly driven by the pandemic and its pressures, showing vulnerability, and empathy, is no weakness. In fact, it is a strength.

Of course, admitting a mistake and not aiming to learn from or fix it, is a sure way to undermine your standing. But an even worse habit is to become more and more risk-averse if you do hit a few stumbles along the way.

Leaders are there to lead into new areas, to drive innovation, to try new things, some of which will be bound to fail. Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes, but successful leadership is learning from them.

Your mistakes can teach others great lessons too. So, share that knowledge with others so they too are better prepared to head down the right path, illuminated by your valuable insights and example. Of course, when it is your team that has made the mistake, bosses should stand behind their employees and take responsibility, and share the experience and knowledge to grow.

How you approach the next step from the mistake will be what defines you and your leadership capabilities: how you bounced back, took the lesson learned, and looked to move forward. It could ultimately shape you as a leader. 

Courage breeds confidence

Taking full responsibility and apologizing for mistakes are important indicators of your courage. Your peers will look to see whether you are courageous before they fully buy into your leadership capabilities.

If they see courage, they’ll feel there’s someone there to make the tough calls and take responsibility for them, and make them feel protected when the going gets tough. It’s a confidence that allows the whole team to get on with their jobs and feel able to try new things and stay innovative, whatever the circumstances, to see what works best.

It’s a chance to project yourself ahead and show resilience, having overcome and persevered.

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