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Should Leaders Admit Failure?

Several weeks ago, I sent out an email to my team admitting that I had failed them and not led by example. I acknowledged my mistakes and that of my colleagues and how we had influenced the team’s behaviour. I also promised to do better going forward.

It is easy for me to admit when am wrong and I never shy away from apologizing. I have done it before with my previous team members. However, this time, it was a little hard as when I bounced off my intended decision with a peer, they told me I should not do it. Their opinion was that admitting would lead to a shift in power and it was not necessary. I simply needed to fix the
issue without admission of guilt, especially because I could not control or influence how the team would receive my apology. Here is the thing, we all make mistakes, and as leaders, we expect
our teams to admit when they are wrong and make the necessary corrections. However, many leaders will rarely if ever admit when they are wrong. It is the aftermath of the confession that many fear. Will I lose my authority? Will they listen to me again? What will they think of me? For many, admitting a mistake, and admitting failure is synonymous with admitting that the leader is not fit to be a leader. But is it really? Does admission reflect incompetence? Does admission
of a mistake mean you are not fit to be a leader?

My email to the team was necessitated by feedback I received from a colleague. I had called them to enquire why something was not happening as per schedule and I discovered that the team stopped engaging because the team leaders had stopped showing up, me included. A discussion was held about the matter, but it never got to me. I was a little angry that my colleague could
not see it fit to raise the issue with me but instead, in their words “they chose to move on to other things.” So, I thought to sit in it and reflect on the feedback and the words of Sheryl Sandberg. In her book Option B which she has co-authored with Adam Grant, she notes that when companies fail, it is usually for reasons that everyone knows but almost no one has voiced. Now that someone had shared the feedback, I had two options, either focus on why it never got to me earlier or address the significant issues raised in the feedback and take responsibility for my mistake and that
of my team.

During his tenure, President Obama publicly admitted to several mistakes committed by his presidency. In one of his statements, he boldly admitted to “screwing up” and rushing into a decision whilst he had been advised not to. This was unprecedented behaviour as most presidents and world leaders think that admitting to mistakes is a sign of weakness. Leaders need to remember that whether they admit it or not, their followers notice the mistakes and are always keenly watching to see how they manage them. When a leader is bold and humble enough to admit that they have failed and are willing to try again and try differently, their followers will be more willing to support them and give them another slate. It also humanizes the
leader as someone authentic and not perfect which results in empathy.

So just in case you are a leader who has been agonizing as to whether you should admit your mistakes, here are a few things to remember.

1. Henry Ford once said “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently”. So, admit it and start over.

2. When we admit our failure, we encourage others to lift the burden of shame that comes with failure and view it as simply part of the process of life, part of the journey to success. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

3. Admitting failure is a sign of confidence, authenticity and openness, qualities that every leader should espouse. Admission is an ego filter and any leader seeking to impact their followers should be able to stand tall and own themselves and their decisions. After all, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.Martin Luther King, Jr.

4. Create a culture that allows your teams to come up to you and give feedback even when it is not rosy. For in the words of Jack  McDevitt , when your people don’t tell you what you need to know, it’s a failure of leadership.

Much Love,