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  • Writer's pictureLiz Tracy

Leading Through Mistakes

Wide Open Spaces

Business leaders today are not exempt from making mistakes. While we like to believe our judgment is getting better, certain behaviors make us vulnerable, such as mindset, delusions, mismanagement, and patterns of unsuccessful (or poor) behavior. Our wishful thinking, denial, and other forms of avoidance often prevent us from seeing our errors—or the mistakes we make. I’ve certainly lived this reality.

I’ve been thinking about this recently: we live in a celebrity culture where leaders, and especially CEOs, are expected to be perfect examples. They are held up as icons. We don’t like to admit they have flaws, or that the traits that make them special can also lead to failure.

We crave heroic leaders who we can look up to and derive a sense of safety and security. We can’t do this when we see their flaws, so we contribute to the heroic myth and enable the leader to plunge full steam ahead, right or wrong. This hero-worship doesn’t help us.

There is a fine line between right and wrong, and like all humans, leaders are capable of swinging back and forth. They can be great leaders and fallible human beings. When great leaders make a mistake, when they realize they were wrong, they take appropriate action.

So why don’t we admit when we made a mistake? Fear!

Fear of mistakes remains a common challenge for leaders today. This fear fuels our drive to avoid losing face, at all costs. Sometimes we fear mistakes because we fear the judgment of our peers. But the truth is, admission of error does less to harm our credibility than ongoing denial.

On our 3-day road trip to Colorado Springs with my son, we made a number of mistakes. Even using mighty Google to find out when Penn State starts doesn’t prevent you from driving through State College, PA during a busy “move in” day.

I made a mistake, we lost time and we weren't going to hit our goal destination for the day. As I owned the mistake my co-travelers and I were able to have a laugh while unwinding from the frustration.

We found ourselves at Jersey Mike’s for the first time, not the lunch I had in mind, but we are all about doing new things. The mistake gave us a moment and brought us closer together. And, I will freely admit there have been many times where my reaction to a mistake like this one was divisive and not community building.

According to social psychologist Adam Fetterman, a researcher at the University of Texas El Paso, “When we do see someone admit that they are wrong, the wrongness admitter is seen as more communal, more friendly.” When someone promptly admits to being wrong, people do not think they are less competent.

Studies also reveal that some people are more willing to admit when they are wrong: they publicly acknowledge that their prior belief or attitude was inaccurate. The researchers called this a willingness to admit wrongness, or WAW. In three studies, they created scenarios to measure WAW, and found a correlation with agreeableness, honesty/humility, and openness to experience.

WAW allows you to be vulnerable and that builds the trust and confidence of your team.

I use the Stewart Leadership Executive Presence program to help my clients on their journey. They show up credible, capable, and confident even in the face of making mistakes. Leaders without executive presence lose an important layer of influence and impact. Check out these 6 consequences of not having executive presence.

What do you think? What is your experience in leading through mistakes? I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at and on LinkedIn.

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