Respond to mistakes with the Triple A’s

“Are you looking to cleanse your soul? BizTimes executive editor Steve Jagler asked.

“As a matter of fact, I am,” I responded.

 I want to admit that I have made a mistake. I want to apologize for making the mistake. And I want to acknowledge the lessons that I have learned with the intention not to repeat the same mistake again.

One of the most courageous and challenging phrases in our language contains three powerful, yet simple words: I am sorry. It’s difficult for most of us to admit when we are wrong, and it seems particularly difficult for leaders to admit mistakes because, for many, admitting mistakes signals weakness.

It is a curious dynamic within organizations. Ironically, the expectation for employees is to admit mistakes; to apologize, to acknowledge the lessons learned and to commit to avoiding making the same mistake again. However, as one ascends to the highest levels of the organization, it seems the expectation shifts from one of admitting mistakes to one of justifying mistakes.

Even when a leader attempts to acknowledge a poor decision, a failed initiative, an inappropriate comment, the language she/he uses is often veiled:

  • “If I have done something that …”
  • “I didn’t intend to …”
  • “We hoped that …”
  • “Things did not go as planned …”

I recall an incident in which a CEO lost his temper during a management meeting. He resorted to blaming others as he expressed his disappointment and frustration about the results of a major organizational project. His voice volume increased and the veins in his neck bulged dangerously as he communicated to his team. It wasn’t his anger that was the problem. It was his inability to manage and direct his anger in a way that others could hear and respond.

In this instance, the CEO had the presence of mind to excuse himself from the meeting. He did what he needed to do to manage his emotions and returned to the meeting with a clear apology to the management team.

“I am sorry,” he said. “I lost my temper when I learned the status of our efforts. It’s not my anger that’s the issue. How I manage it is. We need to assess where we missed the mark and each of us needs to take ownership for our contribution. I own the results with you. What can we learn moving forward?”

That incident became a defining moment for members of his team. They each learned that taking ownership of mistakes, apologizing and committing to doing something differently was to be the norm and not the exception.

These reflections were prompted by a recent personal experience. As I prepared to write my February column for Biztimes on Leadership and Purpose, I searched the internet to see what had already been written on the topic. I transferred a number of pieces to word documents to review at a later time. Inadvertently, I hit send to the BizTimes with a document attached to the e-mail that contained a blog written by Steve Pavlina: “How Do You Discover Your Life Purpose in About 20 Minutes.” It was his blog that was printed in the Feb. 17 BizTimes magazine under my name.

When I realized my mistake, I immediately alerted the BizTimes. I felt physically sick for a number of days. While the column could be pulled from the electronic version, the print version was done. There was nothing that I or they could do.

I appreciate that the further away we get from the initial guilt and horror of a mistake, the easier it becomes to just let it go. I suspect that is a choice that many of us make, with the hope that no one will ever know and perhaps eventually it will fade from our memories as well.

That’s not a plan that works for me! While I am no longer “sick,” I do want to express my sincere apology to Steve Pavlina, the author of the blog. I also apologize to the readers of the BizTimes who count on its contributors to provide fresh insights and reflections on topics that matter. I am sorry.

You can be sure that I will check and double check attached documents to all e-mails for many months to come.

Thank you in advance, for your grace and forgiveness.

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