Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"I screwed up" or "Mistakes were made"...Your Choice

The news programs ran the video loops endlessly this morning as President Obama took responsibility for nominating people who hadn't paid their taxes. Most of the commenters seemed genuinely surprised to hear a leader say that he had made a mistake. He went on to say he would take the consequences and act to rectify his mistakes going forward.

I wasn't particularly surprised. Not because of some partisan political position but because I’ve been interviewing a large number of executives over the last few years for my new book and they do the same thing. It may not be common for politicians to fess up but strategic leaders everywhere know it is the only way to handle inevitable mistakes.

Consider the alternatives – the ubiquitous "mistakes were made" or outright denial. In 2007, I blogged about that nasty, weaseling-out phrase and quoted from some of my interviewees on the importance of admitting mistakes. ( No need to comment on denial…

Now, in my new book, Conventional Wisdom: How Today’s Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress, I discuss in detail how even great leaders make big mistakes and, more importantly what they do when the mistake comes to light. These executives all told the same story, summed up in the words of one of them, "When you make a mistake, admit it, get out quickly, and fix it." Sound advice that many would do well to follow whether in public life, managing a department, or trying to lead a decent personal life.

Here is what I concluded in the book:

What Distinguishes Great Leaders?

* How does a leader handle the bad decision? Great leaders acknowledge their mistakes personally. They do not fall back on the passive “mistakes were made” formula. Instead, they say, "I made a mistake." They accept the consequences of that bad decision.

* What does a leader do? Great leaders take personal responsibility, usually without a lot of fanfare. They take the next right action, no matter what others say or do. They move quickly to fix their errors.

* How does a leader show his beliefs? Great leaders act on their beliefs and are courageous role models for their convictions.

* How does a leader use a mistake? Great leaders learn from their mistakes and act differently in the future. They discover the frames [psychological blinders] leading them to the bad decision in the first place. They get more diverse perspectives on their future decisions.

* How does a leader confront his or her frames? Great leaders understand their own perceptions of the situation can cloud their decision making. They seek other opinions. They recognize they are framed, and work to stand outside their own frames and doubt their own infallibility.

* How does a leader help others to admit and correct mistakes? Great leaders understand humans make mistakes. They encourage risk-taking and do not automatically punish mistakes. They make sure people have the opportunity to learn and grow from mistakes and confront their own limiting frames.

How do you stack up on the mistake-o-meter? As difficult as it is, do you admit you screwed up? Do you take full responsibility? Do you find the source of the mistake and correct it?
It's always so much easier to blame someone or something than to stand up and take your lumps. Little kids say, "I’m sorry," and hope that will make everything all better. But it doesn’t. Because the kid doesn’t have any PLAN to get better. As grown ups, as people who need to incorporate sound leadership into our lives, we have an obligation to admit, submit, and fix it.

(c) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein and Advantage Leadership, Inc.

Read some of the real-life examples of big screw-ups and what strategic leaders did to make it better. Go to and take advantage of special offers to get you copy of Conventional Wisdom: How Today’s Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers. Then send me your feedback to this special address:

This is the first book to:
* tie the lessons from the U.S. Constitutional framers to contemporary leaders
* reveal new leadership secrets from George Washington)
* show you how to achieve the impossible by unleashing the Madison Factor
* show you how to get spectacular results using the practical strategic approaches used by the framers and modern executives.

One critic raved: "This is not a book; it’s a catalyst for strategic leadership." Get your copy today.

The book will not be available on Amazon until May 25, the anniversary of the beginning of the Constitutional Convention. Get your copy today and take advantage of the prepublication offers.

Read a recent article on the importance of the Mission -- Be Careful What You Ask For: Getting the Mission Wrong

No comments: