As a leader, you are going to fail at some point. It’s just a fact. You’re human.
What matters is what you do when the failure happens.
When you fail as a leader, what will you do? When you make a mistake that costs money or time or causes disgruntlement with the team, what steps will you take?
What will you do when you don’t reach financial or other goals? If you treated someone poorly, how will you respond?
Will you admit to that failure and work to fix it? Or will you cast blame or pretend it didn’t happen?
The response you have will determine the type of leader you are as well as your effectiveness as a leader.
When you fail as a leader, whatever the mistake might be, there are three basic steps that you should take every time:
- Take ownership of the failure
- Examine what went wrong and learn from it
- Commit and take action to fix the issue to keep it from happening again
1. Take Ownership of the Failure
One of the biggest and most critical mistakes leaders make is not taking ownership of the failure. This comes about for different reasons.
First, some leaders feel they have to act invulnerable and “strong” in front of their employees. They feel if they show weakness or vulnerability, they will look “weak” and won’t be respected.
Have you ever seen that before? Do you see it in yourself?
The truth is the opposite.
As John Maxwsell said in his book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership:
“Your people know when you make mistakes. The real question is whether you’re going to ‘fess up. If you do, you can often quickly regain their trust.”
Your team knows when you mess up. They see your mistakes. They know what you are weak in. Pretending that you don’t have them makes you look weak.
When you are vulnerable and willing to admit your weaknesses and mistakes, your people will respect you for that and be more willing to follow you.
(Yes, there is the ability to be TOO vulnerable, but too often, leaders show too little vulnerability).
What’s the second reason leaders don’t admit failure or mistakes?
Some leaders don’t admit mistakes because of their insecurity (or they are just all about themselves).
They want to look good. They want to be seen as a good leader. They may be more about themselves and their agenda than the team.
When something goes wrong, they don’t want to admit the mistake, so they blame something else. They blame the economy. They blame their team. They blame other departments – just never themselves.
If they behave poorly to someone, they don’t admit it – they blame the behavior of the other person for their response.
They are also likely to be the kind of leaders who take credit for everything good. They blame when things go wrong and take all the credit when things go well.
Have you seen this before? Does that describe you?
If you want to be a great leader, you have to do the opposite.
Be willing to admit mistakes. If you make a mistake or fail at it, own it. Admit it. It’s likely everyone else already sees it.
To blame or make excuses just makes you look weak. And, if you are blaming your team, you are also hurting teamwork and creating ill will.
Even if it was something one of your team did that led to the failure, as a leader, you are ultimately responsible.
If you behaved poorly, even if someone “deserved it”, still own it and apologize.
And, as a side, when you and your team do well and deserve praise, pass the praise and credit to your team, not yourself.
Bottom line: If a mistake or failure occurred, own it and take responsibility.
2. Examine what went wrong and learn from it
Taking ownership of the failure or mistake is the first critical step you need to take. However, if that’s all you do, you leave yourself to make the same mistake over and over.
After you take responsibility, take the time to examine what went wrong.
If it was an activity or behavior that only had to do with you, take the time to sit, examine, and see why the mistake happen.
Did someone say something that hit an insecurity? Did you not plan well enough ahead? What could you have done differently in that situation?
Learn from it.
You can also get others involved if you want in the search.
If it was a failure that you led (eg your team didn’t meet certain expectations or mistakes happened while performing), you can examine it yourself first, but it can also be wise to examine it as a group or with the individual.
Make it clear to everyone that you aren’t searching for blame, but you are looking for what happened and for what you all can do differently so that you all don’t make the same mistake again.
(If it’s a behavior or action of a specific person, help the person process and recognize what happened through good questioning. Offer whatever support and training they may need to be successful.)
It’s not about blaming or punishing, it’s about learning.
Go through the process and steps of what happened and examine it from every angle.
What mistakes were made? What can be done differently?
Learn from it.
Also as a side note: In the future, when making plans, you can do a pre-mortem. A pre-mortem is where you say “Ok, it’s 6 months (or however long) in the future and our plan failed. What happened?”
You then examine all the ways your plan could fail and then work toward keeping that from happening.
Bottom line: Once you take responsibility, examine the failure to see how the failure happened and learn from it.
3. Commit and take action to fix the issue to keep it from happening again
In some cases, when you took ownership, you should have already taken the first step to fixing the issue: apologizing.
After you apologize, you still need to see why it happened and what you can do to make it not happen – and fix it.
In other cases, you may not need to apologize, but you still may need to work to fix the issue, or at the least, make whatever changes so that the failure doesn’t happen again.
After you examined what happened and why, you should have a pretty good idea of why the failure occurred.
Now work to fix it. Talk to whoever you need to to make it happen. If you still need to apologize, apologize. If you need to change priorities or habits or routines, do so.
If you need to change procedures, make it happen.
Whatever it is, make the commitment and make the change to keep the failure from happening again.
Bottom line: Once you’ve taken ownership of the failure and looked to see the cause of the failure, commit to fixing it and keeping that failure from happening again.
The steps to take when you fail as a leader are simple, but they can be hard to do
This process may seem very simple to you – and it is.
Unfortunately, it’s not always very easy, and too many leaders fail to follow it. You may have observed this fact in some of the leaders yo have worked for.
But that’s not going to be you.
You, on the other hand, will be one to take ownership and then take the effort to learn from it and make the changes, right?
Because if you do, you are one step closer to being an even greater leader that others want to follow.