How to Lead Through Mistakes

Missteps are bound to happen, but it can help to focus on the process (not the people) that led to the problem—and deliver a sincere apology for it.

The beginning of a new year is often a time for facing failure. Some of your resolutions may have flopped—though, take heart, you can always pick up some new ones. And it’s also the time where you’ll get a reminder that you’re not going to smoothly sail through the year—there’ll be mistakes, blunders, even things to apologize for.

Consider a couple of recent incidents. In November, the CEO of a British beer company apologized for misleading consumers, promising that they might find one of a rare few “solid-gold” cans among their six-packs. (Turns out the cans were just gold-plated.) More notably, Nobel Prize-winning musician Bob Dylan apologized for a blunder where a limited number of copies of his new book that were promoted as “hand-signed” by the artist were in fact signed by an auto-pen. 

If you can’t describe how this happened, how will I believe you can fix the problem?

Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher

In both cases the errors were similar—a product was promoted as something that it wasn’t. And in both cases one person stood up to take responsibility. But as any association exec can tell you, failures tend to be part of a series of mistakes that steamroll into a larger one. (They are only likely to tell you that privately, though. For a while Associations Now ran a feature called “Lessons From Failure,” but it was always a tricky business to get an association exec to go on the record about missteps.) 

Leaders can address mistakes without devolving into finger-pointing, writes business professor Ben Laker in a recent article at the Sloan MIT Management Review. Though he acknowledges the CEO’s role in owning mistakes, he stresses that successful organizations “blame processes, not people. They focus on understanding why something happened, not who is responsible.” After all, the ultimate goal is to make sure the problem doesn’t happen again, not to scold one person. 

But though the idea is to address a specific problem, no organization should strive to be error-free. Quite the opposite, Laker writes: It’s only through trial and error that people create and hone innovative ideas. Playing the blame game can only stifle creativity. “Creating species where employees feel safe to try something new and, crucially, to make mistakes without fear of repercussions or judgment helps to encourage them to step outside their comfort zones,” he writes. 

In addition, he writes, successful organizations don’t just encourage trial-and-error processes—they document and share them. Instead of fearing a postmortem on ideas that didn’t turn out well, he says, such a discussion “helps create an environment where everyone feels empowered to take risks and speak up when they see something is wrong.”

That said, it won’t do for a CEO to publicly announce that a blunder was an “innovation opportunity.” Mistakes that negatively impact customers or members deserve a clear explanation and apology. Sandra Sucher, a Harvard Business School professor, recently told Insider that there are two fundamental elements to a CEO’s apology. One, she said, is a clear statement of what the error was. “If you can’t describe how this happened, how will I believe you can fix the problem?” she told the site.

The other element is what she calls an “offer of repair”—an effort to make good on the mistake. Of course, that’s something most of us learn as children. But we also pick up the habit of blaming as children, and it can be a tough thing to undo. So if you’re still working on resolutions, a good one might be to recognize that errors are products of systems—and if you’re looking for someone to blame, remember that you lead the system.

(Altayb/iStock/Getty Images)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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