How Leaders Can Own Their Mistakes

We’re all prone to make mistakes – We’re human after all. But the best way to handle mistakes is to learn from them. And to admit that you make them.


In organizations, leaders are expected to model the utmost standards in all that they do. However, it is easy to take this expectation to a false conclusion: leaders can’t ever make mistakes. Not only is this false, but this simple misguided idea can stand between a leader and his or her self-development.


Leaders’ impact: A leader’s response to their mistakes


Not only do leaders’ responses to their mistakes impact their development but also that of their employees. It is therefore important, that as a leader, you must take care to cultivate awareness around your failures and take time to be mindful of how you manage yourself and your team during humbling moments.

In 2010, Drs. Deng, Bligh, and Kohles demonstrated that fixed or growth mindsets in employees and the leadership style of their superiors had a profound effect on how able employees were to learn from mistakes or how prone they were becoming averse to challenges with uncertain outcomes. Individuals are prone to one mindset over the other. But a leader that emphasizes a growth mindset can bolster those who bring the same growth mindset to the workplace themselves and train growth into employees without it.

However, this ideology and verbal encouragement will only carry a leader and their team so far. If the leader fails to address their mistakes with the same accountability that they approach their team’s mistakes with, they are liable to hold their entire team back from succeeding together.


But what is failure? You might think you know it when you see it. But creating a firm definition for failure will help you prepare for it and address it when the time comes.


What is failure?


In When Leadership Goes Wrong: Destructive Leadership, Mistakes, and Ethical Failures, Deng, Bligh, and Kohles offer a few ways to frame failure. They begin the process by defining failure as “the non-attainment of initial goals.” The crux of this definition is where the responsibility lies. To further delineate what it means to fail, it is useful to distinguish between failures and errors. In this case, an error may be a correctable oversight or a miscommunication that can be fixed and does not necessarily compromise the larger goal of a project.

However, failure does not necessarily mean that the result could have been avoided. This means that before beating yourself up for not meeting your goals, it is important to assess what exactly went wrong. Your response to this outcome will likely also depend heavily on whether you initiated the project, it was offered to you, or it was pushed off on you in which case you had no choice but to take it on.



The benefits of failure

Psychologists Dr. Lafuente, Vaillant, and Vendrell-Herrero in studying international entrepreneurial learning found that failure when paired with resiliency created the learning conditions and growth for entrepreneurs to launch successful ventures. Over and over, the literature demonstrates that framing a failure as an opportunity to learn facilitates more growth and often more pronounced routes to success than other life experiences, professional or otherwise.


What to be on the lookout for


It is key to know yourself, to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. This awareness will contribute to your assessment of failure, its impact, and your course of action.


As researchers Deng, Bligh, and Kohles point out, three factors tend to influence leaders’ feeling of the impact failure has on them:


  • Determination of goals – self-initiated, other initiated and accepted, or imposed)
  • Individual characteristics – conscientiousness, learning orientation, performance orientation, and need for achievement (to name a few)
  • Perceived cause of failure – external vs internal


Understanding these components will help you grasp your own response to failure and to address the situation balanced and mindfully.


What you can do as a leader if you’ve made a mistake


  • Address the issue – Let your team know that you’ve identified the mistake. Keeping quiet about a failed initiative can lead to anxiety and a lack of direction for team members.
  • Be clear about what went wrong – If you need to take responsibility, now is the time. Being outright about your mistakes will foster a stronger team dynamic and trust.
  • Present your plan of action – Your team needs to know that there is a path forward and that you are going to support them and welcome their support. Having clear steps will allow you to reinvigorate morale and give your team the opportunity to come together around a newly unified vision.
  • Ask your team what could be done differently – Collaboratively problem-solving will enhance team buy-in. This invitation allows everyone to take ownership of the results of future projects.
  • Reach out – peers and mentors will likely have excellent advice, if not on what to do next, how to process the failure and set a successful mindset
  • Hire an executive coach – an executive coach can guide you through all the above. Often, blind spots arise in leaders that require addressing by an external professional.


As a leader, you want to meet challenges head-on and build yourself and your team in the process. Likely you are already skilled at many parts of this process, but no one is perfect. If you are interested in how an executive coach may help you on your leadership journey, you can get in touch with Dr. John Behr.


Dr. John Behr offers one-on-one coaching to improve your strengths and identify your weaknesses and feedback is part-and-parcel of his coaching style. He has worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies across the globe.


For more information about how he can help you in your specific area of work, please fill in the form on the ‘Contact Us’ page.