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7 Ways to Recover As a Leader After You’ve Messed Up

recover as a leader

The dreams of most leaders of small and even mid-sized organizations often go unrealized. Why? We all make mistakes. Almost daily.

Okay, daily. We’re human.

Some mistakes go unnoticed. So you take notes and hope not to repeat.

But what happens when you blow it and people do notice? Sometimes everyone knows you made a mistake but no one’s saying anything. Should you break the ice? And if so how?

Or what about those situations when people confront you or bring it up? How can you recover as a leader without losing face?

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, 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.

7 Ways to Recover as a Leader

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.

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’s 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.

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.

If you’re the leader, you’re responsible. Click To Tweet

4. Offer the most complete diagnosis you can

Part of owning an issue is demonstrating you are doing everything in your power to diagnosis 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.

An open leader is a great leader. Get input. It takes away your blind spots. Click To Tweet

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.

After you've made a mistake, fix the system, not just the problem. Click To Tweet

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.


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Any You?

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

Leave a comment!

7 Ways to Recover As a Leader After You’ve Messed Up


  1. Andy Minard on November 22, 2015 at 11:27 am

    Such a relief to expose a problem to the light rather than keep it hidden. At work, I tend to downplay the potential seriousness of an issue. This challenged me to do the opposite, thanks!

    • Happy on February 16, 2018 at 8:30 pm

      Leaders dont have to pretend, when they make mistakes they sort it. As they have a deep character and sense off self, thats why their leaders.They know that work in this day is a facade that worships money. Why are we giving abused kids leadership roles in the workplace, so they can repeat the cycle and tell someone its loveing. When blurring the lines doesn’t work anymore you could always admit you were tricked at your most vulnerable, take a backseat n stop pretending and let people who dont have the world to prove themselves to run it, its called personal development and its not deluded and living a pretend shallow lie.

      • Gary on January 11, 2020 at 10:32 am


      • Cassi on January 29, 2020 at 10:45 am

        This comment sounds very much like it’s referring to a specific, personal leadership situation that the rest of us do not understand.
        I feel the need to say though, just for anyone else reading this comment thread, that the statement “Why are we giving abused kids leadership roles in the workplace, so they can repeat the cycle…” is inflammatory, and when we are talking about the church world, not a representation of Christ.
        Someone who has experienced abuse and come through it, emerging on the other side in a place where they are embracing leadership has likely developed a deep, profound resiliency that can be beneficial for leadership. Yes, abuse requires hope, healing and recovery. Yes, someone who has experienced abuse should pursue those things before completely stepping into the service of leadership, but we should also remember that the pursuit of hope, healing and recovery is life-long for all of us- it just may not be abuse that we are recovering from.
        Sin broke the world. Resiliency empowers us to keep moving forward, even when everything around us screams that we can’t.
        Don’t hold every abused child accountable for one poor experience that you’ve had with someone who happens to share that history.

  2. […] 7 Ways To Recover As A Leader After You Messed Up by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  3. Taka Iguchi on November 19, 2015 at 11:47 pm

    When is problem so big that it’s grounds for termination or at minimum, suspension?

    • CarlaAnne on January 11, 2020 at 10:01 am

      My opinion:
      Only when it’s repeated after several tempts at retraining.
      Only when you are sure they understand the problem.
      Only when you understand why they made the mistake (what was the thinking process – because even mistakes can come from good thought processes so the root issue might not be what you initially think it is)
      Only after asking if there’s a way for you to help it stop.

      Unless it’s not a mistake. If it’s abuse or putting people in severe danger – that’s not a mistake. Then immediate action should be taken to keep people safe. Hopefully with the goal of reintegrating them once they are stable, getting help and are willing to submit to authority. Many are not. But demonstrating you care about the person is huge. And will go a long way in the end.

  4. Benjer McVeigh on November 19, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    So true…it’s so easy to deflect rather than own it when we mess up.

    I would add this: invite someone to call you on the same mistake in the future. “Hey, Dave, I don’t want to contribute to the same kind of issue in the future. I think we’ve made the changes we need to so it doesn’t happen again, but if you do see a situation where the same kind of mistake might happen in the future, you have full permission to call me on it.”

  5. Isaac on November 19, 2015 at 9:41 am

    Thanks, Carey! This is great, especially for someone like me that makes mistakes like its my job (usually minor ones, at least).

    As a pastor I find that sometimes people think there is a problem when there isn’t one. Their perception is skewed, either because they aren’t around enough or because they don’t know what is happening behind the scenes. How do you think we can we apply these principles to diffuse situations where the only real problem is the lens through which people are viewing a situation and not the situation itself?

    In other words, how do we recover as leaders when the only true problem is perspective? Does that make sense?

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