7 Ways Great Leaders Handle Their Mistakes


Blown it lately?

Haven’t we all? Somewhere, somehow, some way, we mess up. Reguarly. Despite our best intentions.

It’s tempting to think top leaders become great at what they do because they make very few mistakes.

Surprinsgly, what makes leaders great is not that they stop making mistakes. What makes them great is how they handle their mistakes.

Which is good news for all of us.

Believe it or not, there is a way you can handle it that, in most cases, will actually increase people’s respect for you.

You might even impress people with how you’ve handled it. Do it often enough when you’ve made a mistake, and you might even get a promotion.

Best yet, this approach to recovering after you’ve messed up is not just a work tip: it’s a life tip.

Practice it when you’ve let your spouse down, your kids down, or friends down, and your relationships will almost always get better.

Battle Your Instincts

The temptation you will have when you blow a situation will be to do what we all want to do:

Hide it.

Hope no one finds out.

Minimize it.

Blame someone.

Justify it.

Battle all five instincts every time. If you can do this, you’re on your way to overcoming the problem that sinks most people when it comes to owning mistakes.

But you need to replace those defaults with specific actions.

As you battle those instincts, replace them with these 7 actions and you’ll find yourself in a very different situation.

Your boss, spouse, friend or team member will probably respect you more and even trust you more if you do these 7 things.

1. Be the first to break the news

Remember, you’re going to want to hide your mistake. Cover it up.

And yet most leaders—especially bosses— hate surprises. I do. So don’t let them discover your mistake. Tell them first. Break the news.

As soon as you detect even the potential of a problem, let your leader know.

Instead of reducing your boss’s confidence in your leadership, it will increase it.

Send the text. Make the phone call. Stop by the office. Look your boss in the eye. Tell them.

Great leaders verbalize their mistakes before someone else has to.

2. Fully state the seriousness of the problem

Here’s what I know to be true. Things are almost always worse than you first think they are. So don’t minimize a problem or blow it off. Fully state the seriousness of the problem. If you’re going to lean toward overstating or understating a problem, overstate it.

Why should you overstate it?

Think through a time when someone let you down and understated the problem. If you’ve had a team member tell you something is ‘no big deal’ only for you to discover it’s a bigger deal than they told you, what happens to you inside?

I know I feel like saying, “Do you realize how serious this is? Do you even understand the issue?” And your confidence in them drops.

I am always thankful when something doesn’t turn out to be as serious as people initially thought it might be. I’ll bet you feel the same way.

So fully state the seriousness of an issue. Even overstate it if you’re not sure.

If you own the seriousness of a situation, other people won’t have to.

3. Own the problem completely, even if you didn’t directly cause it

Great leaders own problems. Even the problems they didn’t directly cause.

Here’s how I think of my own leadership: If I’m the leader, I’m responsible.

This is difficult because often I didn’t directly cause the problem. I wasn’t in the room, at the meeting or even at the event. But if I’m the leader, it’s still my responsibility when things go wrong.

By owning up to your responsibility, you demonstrate a brand of leadership that is far too rare.

4. Offer the most complete diagnosis you can

Part of owning an issue is demonstrating you are doing everything in your power to diagnose and remedy the situation.

Rarely will you have all the information you need to make a full diagnosis when a problem emerges, but bring everything you have to the table every time. Again, this will increase your boss’s confidence in the fact that you are on it.

Again, if your boss knows you were the first to come forward, you understand the problem, you’re owning it and you’re working on it, his or her confidence in you rises, even though you’ve made a mistake.

5. Get input

Because you’re still struggling to some extent with shame or fear, you’ll be tempted to think, “well since I’m responsible, I have to fix this.”

It’s like when you knocked that vase off the living room end table when you were 8 and tried to glue it back together so your parents would never know. Those instincts never really go away.

But sometimes you can’t fix what broke on your own. In fact, usually, you can’t.

So get help. Be open. Ask for input.

An open leader is a great leader. Great leaders know they have blind spots. So get input from the team around you (and your boss) on what the issue might be.

You’ll get a better diagnosis, a better solution, and a better team as a result.

6. Follow up quickly and often, until it’s fully resolved

Don’t make your boss or team members keep asking you whether you’re on it. Give them updates.

Give daily updates if it’s serious. Hourly if necessary. Just remind them you’re on it.

7. Fix the system, not just the problem

Once the problem has been resolved, go the extra mile and ask yourself, “was this really a completely unpreventable problem, or is this a systems issue?”

Chances are something in your current system produced the result. As you know, your system is perfectly designed to get the results it’s currently getting, good or bad.

Go back to your boss or team and now work on the larger issue of how to handle the systems issues that will help ensure problems like this won’t happen again.

I know this is all counterintuitive, but every time I’ve seen someone follow this process for handling a mistake, I am impressed.

My confidence in them grows. It doesn’t diminish. I often want to promote them or at least give them greater responsibility.

And if you adopt this approach, it will not just help you solve an issue, it will make you a better leader.

It will also make you a better spouse, parent, friend, and citizen.

What have you found helpful in solving problems? Anything you would add to the list?

Leave a comment!


7 Ways Great Leaders Handle Their Mistakes


  1. Chris Sweet on December 19, 2017 at 10:20 am

    I just had a situation this weekend. After we handed out Christmas bonuses to the staff, it was brought to my attention that we missed two key staff members: just completely overlooked them. I immediately went to both and apologized and told them that we would present them their bonuses along with an apology to at the end of next week’s service. I have offered to get the bonus to them immediately so they can use it for Christmas, but will still recognize them in this week’s service. It’s very humbling, but certainly the right thing to do to make sure these guys know that I value their service even though I failed to give the proper recognition at the proper time.

  2. Robert on December 10, 2017 at 6:14 pm

    As you know, I am a Church Growth Consultant (Missionary to Churches). I am working with a restart Church. The biggest challenge is that all 15 people who restarted the Church live 12 miles away in a different town in the county. Have any of your readers had this challenge and what did they do. Enjoy reading your articles.

  3. laura jones on December 9, 2017 at 11:57 pm

    I am reading over and over. I just prayed and ask God to show me how to handle a specific situation and here is your post. Amazing. I think you are right…hard as it is to own things and not want to run. Facing things head on is tough work! Thanks for the post.

  4. Francis on December 9, 2017 at 11:14 am

    This wonderful, iam being moulded into a better leader

  5. Jackie Lannin on December 9, 2017 at 10:22 am

    I am also going to support the statement of Fixing the System. This is the most overlooked and most denied issue when continual problems arise. It also gives everyone ownership of change and input to how the system impacts everyone and their participation in it.

  6. Terry on December 9, 2017 at 9:52 am

    Excellent list Carey. I have fallen for all of those temptations you mention, and you are spot on to say “fight them off”.

    Since you asked, I would add one to your list, which is to Share Your Learning. Big lessons come from those big problems and preventing peers/ subordinates from failing way (or at least giving them the opportunity to prevent it) is a sign of great leadership and people/process development.

    I truly enjoy reading your material. Be encouraged!

  7. David Walker on December 9, 2017 at 8:33 am

    Excellent thoughts, Carey. I enjoy your writings and find them timely and valuable. Often times as a leader the most difficult reality to face is the conflict that an error or bad decision causes others in your church/company. I personally have served on staff with leadership who have avoided conflict at any cost, compounding the impact of bad decisions and/or outright mistakes. I totally agree that the “take it head on and resolve it” point of view has proven to be the best down through my years in ministry…..God bless you, friend.

  8. Cole on December 8, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    Carey you’re spot on as usual. That seventh point though. I don’t know how many times early on I just fixed the problem without fixing the system. It came back so many times to bite me. The issue with fixing a system is sometimes that means we may have to shift a culture. That’s a lot of work. But in the end completely worth it to move the company/organization to the next level. As a leader we have to embrace shifting culture. It’s how people grow.

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