The Mistake of Not Admitting Mistakes

By: Wm Patrick Nichols

Leaders must be models of trust and humility, and a leader who can admit his or her own mistakes will set an example for colleagues to follow.

A few years ago, my mentor in leading organizational turnarounds was approaching the end of his distinguished career. He had just led the recovery, from near death, of a $5-billion-a-year company. I sat figuratively at his knee one evening, asking about the crucial elements of leadership.

He said, "I think I'll have arrived as a leader when someone who reports to me comes into my office, closes the door, and says, 'Jim, I've really screwed something up and I need your help sorting it out.'"

Hearing this, I was struck by several virtues it implied: One was the inclination, even at the end of his career, to talk about aspirations rather than boasting of accomplishments. The other was the humility to acknowledge that he hadn't quite arrived at the level of trust he sought. The third was the model of trust and, again, humility that this aspiration conveyed.

After 25 years working in the nonprofit sector and striving to meet the standard my friend set, I'm proud to report that I have, if only a few times, had a colleague make that kind of admission. And I've grown confident that those three attributes are closely linked. Rare, indeed, is the person with enough confidence to make that admission to a boss, absent a culture of trust, humility, and shared aspiration, of looking forward and resisting recriminations.

Perhaps rarer still are those cultures. The primary reason for that, I believe, is the inability of leaders themselves to say, "I screwed up and I need your help." We in association leadership, just like our corporate counterparts, rarely exhibit the combination of trust, humility, aspiration, and, of course, courage to fully acknowledge our own errors.

Knowing myself to be as self-protective, and to suffer as many lapses in courage, as the next person, I have developed a couple of modest techniques for addressing these impulses. First, when I make an error or when I've been involved in a decision that doesn't go right, I try to see it as an opportunity to create the kind of culture I've described. I try to respond by taking four or five times as much responsibility as I believe to be mine. I figure that, like most, I'll naturally discount my responsibility, so I have to double my blame just to get back to what's mine! Then, in order to make sure that my admission has the appropriate impact on my colleagues, I try to at least double it again.

The second technique is probably more familiar. When we identify something that went wrong, I try to begin the conversation by framing it as an opportunity to learn and adjust and then to announce how I contributed to the problem. If my contact was tangential, I often fall back to something like "I've been around a while and, having the biggest view of the organization, I could have seen this possibility looming and warned against it." Then I try to invite others to report what they missed and learned. Next, we analyze what we can learn from the mistake. Then, we start working on what to do next.

An important part of this approach is not pretending the mistake didn't happen. Acknowledging it reinforces the organization's ability to admit mistakes and grapple with them directly and constructively.

Another formative influence on my approach to leadership was my late Uncle Bill. Bill was a lifelong friend of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart. I remember hearing Bill say that every time they got together Sam would have a story about work that he was bursting to tell. He would tell it with great animation and joyful enthusiasm, and, Bill reported, Sam would be two-thirds of the way through the story before it was clear whether he was reporting a colossal success or a colossal failure. The enthusiasm was the same.

These two stories about Jim and Sam serve as reminders to avoid the mistake of avoiding mistakes and to summon the courage necessary to build a culture of aspiration, trust, and humility in the organizations we lead.

Wm. Patrick Nichols is president of Transition Leadership International in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]