Accountability, Personal Development, Values, Well-being

Dealing with Our Mistakes

None of us is perfect – we all make mistakes! Some mistakes are not too bad. But others can cause a real problem. This is particularly true for leaders. Mistakes leaders make can have long term consequences for themselves, their organizations and others both within and outside their businesses.

I remember a mistake I made decades ago when I was an HR specialist for a large business equipment company. I had been tasked to recruit a chauffeur for our CEO. I followed the normal recruitment process and identified one seemingly suitable applicant. However, when it came to doing his reference checks it seemed just too difficult to track down his employment history so I let it slide. The applicant was appointed but within a few weeks we discovered that the safe in the CEO’s office had been burgled – from memory, several hundred dollars had been stolen. Yes, you’ve guessed it. The police investigation identified the fingerprints left on the safe as those belonging to our newly appointed chauffeur who of course had a criminal record! Thankfully, I wasn’t sacked but I’m sure my reputation had been significantly compromised.

How to Deal with the Mistakes We Make as Leaders

  1. When we make a mistake, often our natural reaction is to be horrified! “How could I have done that?!” Of course, we may be tempted to cover it up, blame someone else or try to pretend it didn’t matter but those reactions don’t really deal with the problem. Particularly if the mistake, like the one I made, has a significant consequence. Therefore the first thing to do is to own it and ‘fess up.
  2. The next step is to forgive ourselves. As I’ve already stated, we all make mistakes so we need to have sufficient humility to recognise we are not infallible. Unless we learn to forgive ourselves, which literally means letting go of any sense of shame or guilt we have as a result of the error, we will be unable to move on and learn from it.
  3. When our mistakes have negative consequences for others, we need to own up and confess it, as far as possible, to whomever is affected. That may well result in some consequences for ourselves but usually people will appreciate our honesty.
  4. As stated in point 2, learn from it. A ski instructor once said, “If you’re not falling you’ll never learn to ski!” Usually we learn more from our mistakes and failures than from our successes. So come to see your mistake as a learning experience. From my mistake I quickly learned to stay clear of any applicants with a dodgy employment history and to be sure to do thorough reference checking before employing anyone.
  5.  Reframe your mistake. Following on from point 4, reframe your mistake as a stepping stone to success. When a reporter asked Thomas Edison how he felt to have failed 1,000 times before his light bulb was a success, Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps!” Often mistakes occur because we haven’t persevered sufficiently to develop the necessary knowledge and skill. Edison’s response alerts us to the need to keep on learning and persisting until we have mastered the capabilities and skills needed to be successful in our roles. And because life and work always involve adjustment and change, successful leaders are committed to continuous, lifelong learning.
  6. Ask for help when needed. When you have made a mistake and you can’t solve the problem yourself be humble enough to seek help. Receiving help from someone who is more proficient is a great way to learn how to carry out the activity next time you face something similar. And most people are pleased to offer assistance.


A computer salesman who had just lost a multi-million dollar sale was ushered into the office of Thomas Watson, the first CEO of IBM. This crestfallen salesman admitted his mistake that resulted in his losing the sale and then said, “Sir, I expect you’re going to fire me.” “Fire you?” exclaimed Watson. “No I’m not going to fire you. I’ve just invested several million dollars in your education!” Making a mistake doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a loser – if you learn from it you can become a winner.

Graham Beattie

Check out our webiste for free tools

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *