Should Leaders Admit to Mistakes?

Last Updated Aug 25, 2009 11:53 AM EDT


Should leaders be like the Pope and admit to fallibility, or like politicians and deny mistakes?

At the heart of the problem is trust. We want leaders we trust. If they are always messing up, we will not trust them much. If they never admit a mistake, even when it is obvious, we will not trust them either. The plot thickens, but there is a way out of this intellectual soup.

Some experts advise leaders to own up to mistakes and weaknesses.It makes them more human and approachable, which is important if leadership is a team sport.

But a leader who is always owning up to mistakes and weaknesses loses credibility fast. We may like them, but we will not trust them with important matters. Leaders do not need to be liked -- this way lies weakness. Trust and respect lead to strength.

On the other side of the fence sit the politician-type business leaders, who will never admit a mistake. Worse, they will find someone else to blame. They then wonder why they live in a political, back-stabbing sort of business.

If we want to find a way out, we need to follow the Red Arrows (the RAF air display team) as best as we can. They aim for the perfect show: they prepare and rehearse intensively.

The most important part of rehearsal is the debrief after each training run. They ignore rank -- if the squadron leader messed up, they say so. The team effort is more important than the ego of one person.

In the Red Arrows' world, the leader does not need to make a public confession -- the whole team knows what happened, talks about it and then figures out how to improve collectively.

If the Red Arrows can get over the problem of seniority, then so can business. The key is the debrief. Debrief with the team after every important event -- a big meeting, a presentation, a proposal. We typically do the debrief based on two questions:

  • What went well? Catch yourselves do things well, and then learn to repeat that success.
  • Even better if....? This puts criticism positively. It's not about looking back, analysing and blaming, but looking forward to seeing how we can improve as a team.
The debrief system gets mistakes out on the table, stops the gossips, finger-pointing and politicking. It de-personalises the problem, leaves the leader in control and helps the whole team improve. It takes about five to 10 minutes to do well. It is a small investment with big rewards which is rarely made.

(Photo: wwarby, CC2.0)

  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership