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Leaders Own Their Mistakes

In my leadership journey, one thing has struck me as being a definite delineator between a leader and someone pretending to be a leader. Owing up to your mistakes. It is a hard thing to do but any person who calls himself or herself a leader, better understand this concept. It isn't easy, but it is a cornerstone of true servant leadership and, being the kind of leader that employees can trust.

 In my first book, "The Art of Ronin Leadership," I talk about several of the mistakes I made in my various careers. Using the wrong penal code to arrest someone when I was a cop for instance. Or not having the emotional intelligence to stay out of an email battle with one of my managers and reacting to him in a juvenile way. It just made things worse, not better. (I may have been right about the issue but man, my execution was sorely lacking that time.) The point is that as a leader, a real leader, you have to own your mistakes as much as you own your successes.

You can still find people today in leadership positions who can admit making mistakes. But, they are far and few between. You take a look at our political leaders today. Find me one, just one politician, who will admit they made a policy mistake or, made an error in judgment. Maybe you will find a few but not many. they are in the minority, not the majority. The same is the case in private industry. It's all about spin and blaming something else, or someone else, when things go south on a leader's watch.

If you have followed me for any length of time, you know that I admire the late General Colin Powell. What a career! National Security Advisor, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State. Yet, with all the successes and accolades surrounding Powell, he was a leader who could admit his mistakes.

His biggest one was in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and our subsequent war there. Powell, then Secretary of State, gave a presentation to the UN Security Council about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction (WMD.) The information he used was provided to him by the intelligence community. Information that was later found to be false as no WMDs were found, once the invasion of Iraq commenced.

While Secretary Powell acknowledged that he was using the intelligence community's information as the basis of his UN presentation, he ended up owning that mistake. He didn't point fingers. He could have said, "Hey, the Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, gave me that information. You should take to him!" But he didn't. Numerous times before his death, when asked about this incident, he admitted regretting giving this presentation to the UN. He trusted the faulty intel. But as a real leader, he took the blame. He took the hit. His reputation up until that point had never been sullied. He knew this was a black mark on his otherwise stellar record. But to him, leadership meant owning it. He said it, so he owned it.

Current Secretary of State, Antony Blinken once said, during remarks he gave at the State Department, referring to Powell, that, "He could admit mistakes. It was just another example of his integrity."

Powell, of course, recovered from this incident and continued to be a great leader, mentor and symbol of integrity until he passed. I believe that his legacy was bolstered by his humility and ability to admit when he was wrong. Alas, too many people in leadership positions today cannot do this. 

Whether is is arrogance, cowardice, hubris or being passive-aggressive, we have many people who won't admit mistakes. They pass the buck. They blame their subordinates. They blame external forces. They blame their bosses, (hopefully not in public) they blame everyone and everything but themselves. It is NEVER their fault.

It is a shame really. These misguided folks in leadership positions just don't get it. The troops will respond to a leader who is honest. Who is vulnerable. Who doesn't try to pretend they are omniscient. 

Most of you have heard of Jocko Willink. He is a former US Navy SEAL Commander who fought in Iraq. He has a very successful podcast and a bestselling book "Extreme Ownership." Here is the link to a YouTube Ted Talks video where Jocko talks about owning up to a really big mistake.

In one of the battles he was in, there was a friendly fire situation. An allied Iraqi solder was killed, several were wounded and, one of Jocko's SEALs had also been wounded. In the video, he describes the debrief afterwards in front of his Commanding Officer, a Master Chief and an investigating officer.

Though other members of his SEAL team said it was "their fault" for the mishap, Jocko told the room that it was "his fault." He said that he was the Commanding Officer and that everything that happened with his team was his responsibility, good or bad. Like Powell, Jocko is a real leader. If something goes south, he owns it.

Contrast that today when you hear tin horn politicians always blaming someone else, or the other party for any mistakes on their watch. Or CEOs who won't own up to bad or flawed business strategies that they signed off on. Strategies which have led to declines in their businesses and ROI. Maybe it was a mistake in the execution of said business strategies. But, if you are the leader at the top, guess what sports fans? You own it. If your business strategy is not working, you have to admit you have the wrong strategy, regroup, rethink and come up with a better strategy. Period.

Remember the quote at the beginning of this article from Bill Gates? 

"It is fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure." 

No words could ring more true. If you desire the mantle of leadership, then you take the good with the bad. You make a mistake, admit it. Learn from it and move on. Your troops, your supervisors and your growth as a leader will all benefit from this lesson. 

Thanks to all of you who subscribe to this blog. More content is coming. Your comments and suggestions are welcome!

Till next time.

Oh, I would be remiss if I didn't make a plug for my Ronin Leadership Podcast. We have almost 1500 subscribers and we are growing. Check it out:

Also, my four books are for sale on and two of them, "The Art of Executing Ronin Leadership Strategies," and "Full Circle," are available on Kindle Unlimited, Audible and in paperback.

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