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Two Things Weak Leaders Say When They Make Mistakes

Terina Allen, Author


September 5, 2018

There are many differences between strong leaders and weak leaders, and there are many differences between effective leaders and ineffective ones. One key difference is the way individuals handle their mistakes and the mistakes of their team members and organizations. No one is perfect; we all make mistakes from time to time. Often, it is not the mistake itself that undermines a leader’s credibility; however, his response – or lack thereof – to that mistake can (and does) significantly undermine his credibility.

Leaders can espouse many great virtues, and some even hope that others will eventually characterize or describe them as great or effective leaders. Although leadership is not synonymous with position titles, many of you aspire to become the boss, the executive, the supervisor and/or the manager, and many of you already are. While accepting such roles will likely help you advance up the career ladder, these positions also bring many challenges, demands and responsibilities that aren’t always appreciated. When a mistake happens – whether it is by you or a member of your team – you will notice that the rubber meets the road really quickly, and the strength or weakness of your leadership will immediately come through.

How you respond to your mistakes or the mistakes of those you lead will show others precisely what kind of leader or manager you really are.  Strong and confident leaders don’t say things that make them look weak, and the following two statements serve to do precisely this. If you want to increase your leadership effectiveness, you’d do well to refrain from using the following two statements when responding to your own or your team's mistakes. I recommend you apply the better approaches below.

Mistakes Were Made

Really? While this statement shows you are acknowledging that a mistake was indeed made, it in no way demonstrates your ability or willingness to actually take responsibility for it. The message this statement sends is that some unknown, vague person somewhere in the universe made mistakes, but we are not willing or able to identify who this is and will not be holding anyone accountable for these mistakes. It is a weak statement and reflects poorly on your organization, your team and your leadership.

The people hearing this from you would be well advised to start questioning your commitment to lead. The outcome is that this phrase is just weak, and the person saying it looks weak because he clearly accepts no ownership for making – or even being involved with – the mistake. And when you are leading a team, you are involved no matter who on the team makes the mistake. The people watching and listening want to know that you know this.

The better approach/response

To demonstrate the strength of your leadership, you would do better to respond with something like this:

We have reviewed the (fill in the circumstance/situation) and have determined that (use we or I) made a mistake when we did (name the mistake). As the manager or leader, I take full responsibility to resolve this matter and make amends to those who were harmed. It is important that we get this right. So we will continue to investigate and determine the appropriate consequences and remedies for a successful resolution. I want you to know that I understand the damage this has caused and that it matters to me. I own the problem or mistake and personally commit to resolve this matter and get back to you.

I’m Sorry If You Were Offended or I’m Sorry If Anything I Said Offended You

Seriously! While both of these statements have you saying you are sorry for something, neither statement reflects that you are sorry for what you actually did or said. Both of these statements send a message that the leader is apologizing for another person being offended. So the problem becomes that someone got offended – not the fact that what you did or said could have caused the offense. This statement ends up being a backhanded apology that adds insult to injury.

Either of these statements ends up placing blame on the other person for being offended by what you did or said. Nothing in these statements acknowledges that you ever did or said anything that you are sorry for doing or saying. These statements become an apology for offending another person without you actually taking responsibility for your own actions or words. The person hearing this starts to think that you believe the problem is really his/her offense to your words/actions. Not only are you overlooking your part in it all, but now if someone is offended by it, you feel the proper action is apologizing for their response to what you did/said?

The better approach/response

If you are indeed sorry for your actual behavior/action/words, then apologize specifically for that. I recommend that you provide an apology for your own part in the issue; don’t apologize for the other person’s response. You could say something like “I apologize for (fill in the behavior/action/words that caused an offense), and I never intended to offend you.” If you are not sorry for your behavior/action/words, just say, “I never intended to offend you with my (fill in the behavior/action/words), and leave off the “I’m sorry bit” altogether.

Don’t apologize at all if you don’t mean it, and don’t apologize for the other person’s response. Apologize for precisely what you are responsible for and acknowledge and validate the other person’s feelings.

If your goal is to build credibility and trust and solidify relationships, you will want to ensure that those listening to you view you as holding yourself and others accountable. Strong leaders answer for their team’s actions and their own actions by taking full responsibility for mistakes. If your goal is to erode credibility, diminish trust and dissolve relationships, feel free to go around saying things like “mistakes were made” or “I’m sorry if you were offended.”

Responses that show you are owning the problem will leave you looking far better than responses that show you running from it. How do you want to be viewed as a leader?

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