When a Leader Screws Up

We all make mistakes. Some are simple and practical, but as leaders we can screw up in visible, expensive and very painful ways. I have recently had the opportunity to experience firsthand the impact of a very personal screw-up (mine, I am afraid), which took me back to some best practices I have learned over the years for dealing with mistakes.

Most of the leadership models start with making an apology, going on to learn from the events and then proceeding with confidence. But I think that some learning first is in order.

No one makes a mistake on purpose. Whether the bad call was a meeting agenda item or an acquisition decision, I thought it was the right thing at the time. If what I thought was the right thing then turns out to be misguided, wasteful or just plain wrongheaded, I have to come to grips with that and understand what got me there. Until I do the work to understand what drove the error, an apology is at risk of coming out sideways though positioning an explanation.

You may recall in May 2009 when Kim Hendren, Arkansas state senator and congressional hopeful, made an unfortunate remark about Chuck Schumer, referring to him as “that Jew,” a statement made in private but outed by a conservative blogger. Hendren’s apology was a great example of someone not fully understanding his own role. Here is what he said:

“I made the mistake of referring to Sen. Schumer as ‘that Jew’ and I should not have put it that way, as this took away from what I was trying to say.” So Mr. Hendren was sorry that he was misunderstood, not that he spoke out of turn?

When I understand what I did to screw up, and how it happened, I am much more likely to understand what I am apologizing for — and to do so cleanly and effectively.

After introspection, another step is to practice. This is not about building a presentation or creating a slick speech. It is a test. If I cannot make an appropriate, clear apology without explaining away my own responsibility, sliding into excuses or trying to lay blame elsewhere, I need to do more work on the learning. If I cannot practice a clean apology, then I am very likely to repeat the very behavior that created the need for an apology in the first place. The error may have been fed by a large number of outside influences, but in apologizing, a leader is taking accountability for the decision he made.

This process then allows for the design of clear action steps to prevent the same situation from happening again, and can often include the group impacted by the bad call. If I understand what contributed to the poor decision, then I should be able to isolate the behavior I will change in the future.

All of this prep may seem to be a lot of overhead — and, of course, may not always be needed. But there is a big difference between “I am sorry I was late for our meeting and held the group up” and “I apologize for my decision to pursue a transaction that cost the organization $30 million. In retrospect, I can see that the research was not sufficient for us to understand all the implications. In future, we will vet the research through a third party for deeper analysis.”

Then comes what is perhaps the most important step. If a leader is going to function fully, then the learning has to have more weight than guilt or self-doubt. Lead fearlessly. If the error was serious enough to be a firing offense or create other less extreme consequences, the organization will be certain you know it. However, a leader’s self-flagellation and guilt have slowed the progress of many organizations long after the impact of the error was settled and done for the board and the rest of the company.

No leader is expected to be perfect, so an error in judgment is an opportunity to learn, strengthen trust and move on, but only if it is handled head on with courage, integrity and even a sense of humor.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, January 27, 2014.