What to Do When You Mess up as a Leader

by Don Smith

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I looked at my email, and my heart sank.

“Where are you?”

I had forgotten the conference call I was to lead. No call, no show, and every one of my techs knew it. It was too late to call in; the meeting was over.

The ironic thing was that I had forgotten the call because I was at a leadership conference getting ideas to help our organization. A routine project status call and I had forgotten to cancel it and wasted everyone's time.

Wow, some leader I am.

That mess-up was quite some time ago, but I still remember it vividly. So what do you do when you screw up as a leader?

What to Do When You Screw up as a Leader

Most people are very forgiving when there is a problem. They understand that everyone is human, but they generally want to see three things.

  1. They want to know that you care
  2. They want the problem resolved
  3. They want to see that it won't happen again

1. Show You Care

I could have ignored the situation, but instead, I used this three-part formula to show that I cared, because I do.

i. Apologize

I messed up; there was no excuse for not sending out an email and canceling that meeting. I called up each person who was involved and personally apologized to them. If you screw up, remember what you learned in kindergarten and give a sincere apology. It's amazing how far that simple act will take you as long as you aren't constantly repeating the mistake.

ii. Don't Make Excuses

Have you ever had someone apologize to you but then immediately defend their actions? It negates the entire apology, don't do it. I can hear that kindergarten kid now, “I'm sorry for kicking you, BUT…” 

No buts.

Yes, there may have been a reason for that kid getting kicked, but it's not going to go over well when it gets pointed out during an apology. Two wrongs don't make a right. When you screw up, don't get defensive, simply apologize without making excuses.

iii. Listen

People want you to acknowledge there was a problem and often want to vent their frustrations. They want to feel like you care, and the way to do that is to listen to what they say. Don't interrupt, don't make excuses, just listen.

Everyone I talked to instantly forgave me for missing the meeting. I accepted the forgiveness, apologized again, and moved on to other subjects. They knew I cared.

2. Resolve the Problem

In this case, there was no further action required. But an apology isn't enough if you haven't yet resolved the issue (assuming it can be resolved). Pull in whatever resources you need to pull in and resolve the problem as quickly as possible.

3. Prevent the Mistake in the Future

Luckily in my case, I had built up a lot of trust with my team, and they knew it was unlikely to happen again. I didn't have to explain further, but in most cases, you'll want to think through this and let the person know how you will prevent the issue in the future.

If it was a mistake made by your team, pose the question to them, “How can we prevent this in the future?” Add the solution to a checklist if you have one. Be sure to share any thoughts you have on how you will prevent the problem in the future with the affected parties.

Do your best to follow through as one mistake is understandable, but most people have a limit on how many times they will extend forgiveness. Forgetfulness is not an excuse, that's why humans invented paper.

Give Grace

Hopefully, these ideas will help you next time you find out that you're a human being and are capable of making mistakes. We all make them, the difference is how you respond. Remember this next time one of your team members makes a mistake and give them a little grace because no matter how good you are, it could be you screwing up next time.

About the Author 

Don Smith

Happily married with five kids, Smith owns a technology company, is the founder of this site, has served on the board of directors for multiple companies, and loves playing soccer, hiking, and mentoring.

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