Why Owning a Mistake is a Mark of Leadership

By Aimee Hansen

What makes you trustworthy as a leader is not whether you make a mistake at all. You are bound to make some because real leadership enters into the  area of unknown outcome. It’s whether you are capable of taking ownership of your mistakes – and if you can handle them with honesty, integrity and grace.

The best leaders don’t become less trustworthy when they make a mistake. They become more trusted – precisely because of how they owned and managed the process.

The Importance of Admitting When You Are Wrong

Previously, research across 3,100 employees in 13 countries revealed that the largest gap in leadership behavior between what matters to employees and what is perceived to be consistently demonstrated by supervisors is: “admitting when they are wrong.”

Eighty-one percent of employees considered it important or very important for leaders to admit mistakes, but only 41 percent felt their bosses consistently did so.

Researchers found that a leader’s willingness to “admit when they are wrong” is the top tested behavior when it comes to positively impact on employee job satisfaction and intention to stay in the job.

The Danger of Deniability or Deflection

An inability to perceive and admit mistakes is not at all a strength, but a weakness – and in a leader, it’s blind and dangerous.

Nobody enjoys being wrong, and Psychology Today points out that sometimes we accept full responsibility and sometimes we accept only partial responsibility for mistakes, but that is different than a tendency to “push back against the actual facts”.

When an individual repetitively pushes back on all evidence and is simply unable to admit he or she is wrong, it’s psychological rigidity.

“Some people have such a fragile ego, such brittle self-esteem, such a weak “psychological constitution,” that admitting they made a mistake or that they were wrong is fundamentally too threatening for their egos to tolerate,” writes Guy Winch, Ph.D., “Accepting they were wrong, absorbing that reality, would be so psychologically shattering, their defense mechanisms do something remarkable to avoid doing so — they literally distort their perception of reality to make it (reality) less threatening. Their defense mechanisms protect their fragile ego by changing the very facts in their mind, so they are no longer wrong or culpable.”

Winch points out that this person may appear as though standing their ground and not backing down, and we would then associate this behavior with being strong, but this behavior is anything but strength or conviction.

“These people are not choosing to stand their ground; they’re compelled to do so in order to protect their fragile egos…” write Winch. “It takes a certain amount of emotional strength and courage to deal with that reality and own up to our mistakes.”

If someone cannot admit a mistake in the face of clear evidence, if they have to blame something else, deflect or change the story, it’s because their ego is too fragile to allow the humility (or humanity) of erring. That’s the opposite of leadership.

On a lighter scale, even not vocally acknowledging a mistake or glossing over it can reflect a lack of awareness in the growth value of doing so.

“As any great leader will tell you, they have made many mistakes along the way. They will admit that it was the collective insight from bad decisions that taught them invaluable lessons – and how to see opportunities in everything and anticipate the unexpected more quickly,“ writes author Glenn Lopis in Forbes. “Successful leaders are transparent enough with themselves and others to admit their wrong doings so that those around them can also benefit from their learnings. They call this wisdom and many leaders lack it – because they are too proud to recognize mistakes as valuable learning moments for themselves and others.”

The Alchemy in Owning Mistakes = Trust

“Being a leader doesn’t mean that you’re always right or that you won’t err,” writes Jim Whitehurst, president and CEO of Red Hat, “What being a leader does mean is airing the reasons for why you did something and then making yourself accountable for the results—even if those you’re accountable to don’t directly work for you.”

Admitting and taking responsibility for a mistake means a willingness to show human vulnerability and transparency – which cultivates a sense of trust, adds to your credibility as a leader and earns respect.

“Typically, when leaders realize they’ve made a mistake, others have noticed, too. Leaders who then fail to admit they were wrong leave employees feeling as though their leaders consider being right more important than being honest,” writes Chris McCloskey, from Dale Carnegie Training. “Taking responsibility demonstrates that leaders value integrity over the easier paths of laying blame or hoping their mistake won’t be exposed. Admitting when you’re wrong also shows you’re aware of, and therefore in a position to learn from, your mistakes. This can build further confidence in your leadership.”

Owning your mistake provides an important sense of safety as a leader, and puts more validity behind your word. When employees feel safe, their talents and energies are put towards supporting the leader rather than protecting their position in the organization, while creating a culture in which employees can feel safe to take important risks and own their mistakes too.

Michelle Reina, of Reina Trust Building consultants, writes, “through nearly 25 years of trust-focused research and experience, we can give one piece of guidance to leaders seeking to increase their trustworthiness: Take responsibility for your mistakes.” Reina asks, “Do you remember the last time you didn’t just ‘get through’ a mistake, but embraced it as a ready-made opportunity to deepen trust?”

Reina argues that the authenticity, integrity and safety built through  owning a mistake and then addressing solutions catalyzes trust: “In our experience, when you admit you’ve made a mistake, you don’t erode trust in your leadership, you strengthen it.”

What Women Must Keep in Context

Research shows women are more likely to hold on to mistakes emotionally and blame themselves, while men move on faster, tell “tidy stories” or exhibited detached perspectives on mistakes.

So while being forthcoming in owning real mistakes, it’s also important for women particularly to remember that ownership of a mistake does not justify or require self-shaming. And this is not about habitual apologizing, which is clearly something to break from.

Owning a real mistake is about owning a clearly bad judgment or decision as something you are capable of as a human, so you can acknowledge and learn from it. It’s about knowing you are big enough to admit an error, not making yourself smaller. Whereas self-shaming means women are going to a place of “I am bad” for having ever made that mistake.

“Women can spend less energy beating themselves up and more energy learning from the mistake,” writes Alina Tugenda, author of ‘Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong’. “I’m not advocating blaming “the system,” but being able to depersonalize the mistake helps us to view it more objectively and learn whatever lessons can be learned from it.”

Navigating Your Mistakes

Ultimately, making a mistake or judgment in error is a reflection of having been willing to take the decisions that come at both risk and opportunity.

What matters is the ability to allow the humanness to acknowledge your mistakes cleanly without covering them up, displacing blame or overly internalizing and dramatizing the mistake.

Beyond owning the mistake, leadership actions are mitigating the damage, learning from your mistakes, openly working with your team to address solutions, helping others to avoid the same mistake and moving onwards.

A mistake is a mistake. The process of navigating the mistake can be a stepping stone towards greater trust, respect and admiration as a leader. As with anything, it’s how you handle it that makes the difference.

Authors Bio: Aimee Hansen is a freelance writer, frequent contributor to theglasshammer and Creator and Facilitator of Storyteller Within Retreats, Lonely Planet recommended women’s circle retreats focused on self-exploration and connecting with your inner truth and sacred expression through writing, yoga, meditation, movement and ceremonies.