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Leadership Development, Career Success, NSLS Blog

How Great Leaders Fix Their Mistakes

When talking about leadership, it can be easy to focus on positives — everything you can do “right” to become a great leader. Despite our best intentions, however, we’re all human beings, and humans are known for being, well … imperfect. 

Everyone makes mistakes along the way, whether big or small, and the social media world has ensured that many mistakes become quite public. Whether you agree or disagree with this new, highly public element of our culture, you can certainly learn from the mistakes of leaders whose misdeeds have been splashed across news feeds.

Unfortunately, some leaders either believe that admitting to mistakes shows weakness or that they were never wrong in the first place, such as Elon Musk’s mishandling of X (formerly known as Twitter).

Luckily, many other leaders have modeled empathy and accountability in the aftermath of their mistakes. Here’s what truly great leaders do to fix their mistakes. We’re also sharing some real-world examples of leaders who took these steps and learned from their mistakes.

A Great Leader Admits Their Mistakes and Apologizes

Most of us don’t like admitting when we’ve made a mistake - in fact, a 2019 study revealed that 67% of people hate admitting when they’re wrong. The emotions that come from mistakes, including embarrassment and shame, are difficult ones to face, but admitting to your mistakes and apologizing makes you a better leader and improves work culture.

No matter how tempting it is to hide your mistake or blame it on others, it’s important to take responsibility for your actions. Most of us know that it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also a sign of strength that’s essential for the health and success of your organization.

When you do admit to your mistake, remember these important elements of a meaningful apology:

1. Don’t minimize the problem or your role in it.
2. Don’t pass the buck, even if the mistake happened at a level below you. As a leader, take responsibility for your organization.
3. Express your regret.
4. Explain what went wrong and what you’ll do to make it right — more on this below!
5. Mean what you say.

Finally, don’t forget to give yourself a little grace. Admitting your mistakes doesn’t mean berating yourself and creating more shame. Remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes and that you will learn from your own.

A Great Leader Embraces Communication and Transparency

Communication and transparency aren’t just important for avoiding the urge to sweep mistakes under the rug — they also help you fix the problem. Leaders don’t have to work alone. In fact, asking for help is a valuable trait in a leader. 

By sharing information with others and asking for help, you can minimize damage and/or prevent future damage from your mistake. Bringing others into the discussion allows you to recognize your blind spots (which we all have!) and how the problem occurred, allowing you to fix the problem more quickly and effectively.

A Great Leader Takes Action to Fix the Problem

For strong leaders, offering concrete solutions to make things right is essential to a productive and meaningful apology. Fixing the problem shows that you mean what you say, and that you will take action to prevent the problem from occurring in the future.

Gather input from others through those open communication channels suggested above and create a plan. When you offer the plan as part of your apology, provide actionable steps and, if necessary, timelines; specificity demonstrates your dedication to carrying out the plan and solving the problem. 

RELATED: bouncing back and finding your flow when you're off your game

A Great Leader Channels What They Have Learned Into Future Success

Once you’ve taken each of these steps, take some time to reflect on what happened. What was the mistake? What was your role in it? If someone else under your leadership made the mistake, how could you have provided support to avoid it? What else can you do to avoid something like this happening again?

A growth mindset — that is, the belief that you can grow and improve, powered by a sense of curiosity and eagerness to learn — is essential for successful leadership. Those with a growth mindset know that mistakes are great teachers from which they can learn and then improve. Observe your mistakes and determine how you can channel them into your growth and future success.

Great Leaders We Can Learn From

Another thing to remember: We can also learn from the mistakes of others! We can learn from others in two ways: First, we can learn how to avoid their specific mistakes (and seek to understand why they were wrong), and second, we can find models for our own behavior when we make mistakes.

Here are some great leaders who have modeled excellent leadership skills when addressing mistakes or controversies:

Eric Yuan
When the video conference platform Zoom suddenly boomed during COVID-19, the increase in users also led to an increase in security and privacy issues. In a memo to users and in various news outlet appearances, Yuan apologized, admitted the company fell short of security expectations, and promised that Zoom would correct the problems.

Michael B. Jordan
When Michael B. Jordan released a rum brand in 2021, he didn’t know that the name, J’Ouvert, had any offensive meaning. But when fans shared the deep cultural meaning of the term for those of Caribbean heritage and accused Jordan of cultural appropriation, he took to Instagram with a public apology and a promise to rename the brand.

President Barack Obama
In 2013, after assuring voters for some time that they wouldn’t have to give up existing (and preferred) healthcare plans under the new system, many Americans were nonetheless at risk of losing their coverage due to old plans not meeting the new standards of the Affordable Health Care Act. In response, Obama offered a public apology to the many Americans at risk of losing their insurance plans.

In 2022, Beyoncé came under attack for her use of an ableist slur in one of her songs. In response, the artist took action immediately, changing the lyrics and apologizing for the unintentional harm caused.

Despite their mistakes, these leaders and others like them have retained the respect of their fans and those they lead. Their examples show that contrary to the belief of some, admitting wrongdoing shows strength of leadership. 

There are many reasons to admit your mistakes, from helping yourself grow to earning the respect and admiration of others to giving yourself the grace you need to avoid future shame from unaddressed feelings of embarrassment over the mistake. 

Join us in creating a community of current and future leaders who admit and learn from their mistakes, creating a better world in the process.