Admit mistakes before someone exaggerates the story.

I’ve learned a ton about leadership by making mistakes.  One in particular was around twenty years ago. 

I was very early into my career as a school administrator and the district was working to pass a high stakes referendum.  As a member of the administrative team, one of the volunteer/community service roles I had was to connect with school supporters a few months in advance, then to follow up with them during the week of and on the day of the election.  Important note – this was all on personal time and I used my personal phone and resources.

On the important day, having made my final calls and taking my daily jog, I threw some food in the microwave and hunkered down to watch the news.  As Tom Brokaw gave his nightly sign off and the local news came on, the first thing I heard was “the polls just closed.” Immediately, a sickening feeling came over me.  

I had forgotten to vote.  

The one responsibility I had to support my community and my school that day was to vote.  How could I talk with integrity about the referendum, or with those who I encouraged to cast a vote, having not participated myself?  Worse, what respect would I lose from my peers and my superintendent if they learned that I failed in such a basic responsibility?

After a few moments, I realized I needed to own the mistake.  I called my superintendent and admitted that I had dropped the ball. At the time, I think I was hoping that being proactive might preserve an ounce of respect.   

I wasn’t prepared for his response.

In a very calm and reassuring tone, he made it clear that owning this error meant a lot more to him than not voting.  Moreover, he made it clear that instead of this being a respect-losing event, it was quite the opposite.

That moment has stuck with me for a long time. 

There are all kinds of emotions at play when someone lets others down, or makes a mistake affecting others’ work, life or happiness.  And it’s made worse when others fill-in their own narrative about what happened or why it happened. 

What this incident taught me was that the fastest way to regain trust or respect is to avoid excuses and take ownership immediately. I’ve found that the disappointment that comes with being let down fades quickly when the offending person takes ownership. 

Since then, I’ve learned to spot and respect others who do this regularly.  I’ve also lost respect for others who don’t do this.  Especially those in leadership positions or public office.

After all, the simple act of taking ownership is respectful.  It demonstrates vulnerability and builds trust, whereas excuses erode trust. Moreover, long after an incident occurs, I have found that what will be remembered is not the mistake, but how it was handled.

Where I am going with this is that taking ownership is both a habit and an attitude.  Even with the small stuff, it’s important to remember that admitting your mistakes before someone exaggerates the story is the only prudent action.

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