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Fail Well: 5 Tips for Owning Your Mistakes

Recently, I made an early morning phone call to one of my direct reports to own a blunder on my part. Not a great way to start the day.

If you’ve ever blown it as a leader, you know that these conversations are never fun. It’s humbling.

Great leaders hold those they lead accountable. But those we lead must see us as holding ourselves accountable as well. If we expect them to “own it” when they make mistakes, we need to first model this for them.

Here are five principles for owning your own mistakes and failures:

1. Respond immediately.

When you realize you’ve made a mistake, “own it” with those involved as soon as possible. Delaying only tempts you to put it off and rationalize why it’s not that big of a deal to share. If your teammates don’t see you owning your mistakes when they come to light, they will question your credibility—and rightly so.

2. Be crystal clear.

Be direct and clear about the mistakes you make. If avoiding accountability is bad, half-owning a mistake wrapped in excuses is pathetic. Don’t beat around the bush or sugar coat the issue. Clearly identify the mistake and its implications. This will help bring people up to speed on the issue and enlist their support in what should be done next.

3. Share the lesson learned.

Failure is a wasted experience if nothing is learned. Learning a personal lesson is good, but teaching others from your mistakes is even better. It will take some humility on your part, but great leaders know that it’s much more effective to lead out of vulnerability with all of our imperfections than seeking to manage a façade of leadership perfection.