You’re Not a Real Leader Until You Can Admit to Screwing Up

Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, said he and other managers didn’t do enough to challenge Facebook when he led the company. “I screwed up,” Schmidt said.

When I saw that statement, it was like two chest bumps. That’s what I am talking about.

There is nothing more exciting for me to see someone fess up to making a mistake. For a leader to do that, it is just awesome.

In this new era of leadership, you can never be a real leader until you pass that hurdle.

My father gave me this advice when I married right out of college. “Don’t ever be afraid to admit you made a mistake. A real man will always fess up,” he told me. My parents were married for 49 years and were in love with each other until the end.

He was always fessing up. I have had my share of doing that, too.

Mistakes: the perfect learning opportunity

As leaders today try and right the ship — whether it be a new product, strategy or a new company — one of the most feared aspect is fear of making a mistake. The only way to not encounter a mistake is to never do anything new. Just keep kicking the can down the road because this way you are assured of never making the “Big M.”

Leaders should embrace mistakes, not only for themselves but for their team as well. If you as the leader will admit you’re wrong, and then walk your team through a process of what you learned and what you would do differently, you will have raised your entire team to a new level.

Not only is it a learning experience for you, but with the example you are setting you will lead your team to a new heights. The big fear in the room will have been has been tackled and subdued.

Mistakes are rich in substance

As a passionate gardener, one of the first items I focus on each season is the rich soil that we use to pot or repot. Mistakes are the same and are just as rich in substance.

The nuggets of wisdom are buried throughout — what can we learn and what will we need to pick up the pieces? There should be a process, and hopefully, it will not be used that often. But when the opportunity presents itself, walk everyone through it.

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When the leader does this by admitting an error, they have faced down the elephant in the room. They give their team room to be creative or innovative. If you set the example by not reprimanding your troops but instead walk them through a methodical process of review as a learning experience, everyone wins.

The leadership model going forward will require an authentic leader who collaborates with his or her team. Let them learn as a team. As a leader there is a great value in gazing from the sidelines even if you know that someone is headed in the wrong direction. The learning experience will be greater for them and everyone involved.

Time to make the next move and move on

Whether you make a big mistake that stinks up the room, or just a small one that is not a big deal, LET IT GO.

Focus on the improvement aspects and what was learned. You are reinforcing everyone’s ability to add “mistake review” to their toolkit. This mentoring model as a part of the learning process creates an atmosphere where your team will become an incubator of strong leadership skills.

As they mature in this process and pass it on, you will have completed the ultimate knowledge transfer.

Just remember: it is always OK to say one of the most important phrases in the leadership vocabulary — “I made a mistake.”

And, always remember this quote from Alexander Pope, in Swift, Miscellanies:

A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying … that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


2 Comments on “You’re Not a Real Leader Until You Can Admit to Screwing Up

  1. Excellent article Ron.

    I encourage the reader to think about their organization and the difference it would make if people felt safe to say “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know” or “I screwed up” vs. having to be the smartest person in the room…or at least not fear being seen as the dumbest one in the room.

    Another huge benefit of this kind of honesty is the trust and respect you get from your employees. Think of how you feel when someone in a position of power acknowledges their mistakes or their imperfections.
    Don’t you respect them more for doing that?

    I’m always amazed when coaching managers about the amount of fear there is around being real and authentic. It’s not like your employees are noticing these things about you and by not acknowledging them , you’ll keep them a secret.

    By being more real, you become more “bondable”.

    The more “bondable” you are, the more your people care about what you have to say, and the more they want to do their best to earn your respect.

    David Lee

    Twitter: @HumanNatureWork:twitter

  2. I don’t see any props for Einstein here. Another mistake? “The only way to not encounter a mistake is to never do anything new.”

    “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”

    ~ Albert Einstein

    Sorry, but nothing new here.

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