Healthy Leaders


How to Recover After You’ve Made a Leadership Mistake

Ron EdmondsonRon Edmondson

You know you made a mistake. It’s just a matter of time before someone finds out.

What do you do now?

I have often watched leaders struggle to recover from a mistake made that probably didn’t have to be as personally or professionally damaging to them as it was. They simply didn’t respond well enough and it cost them more than it should have.

Like the time a college pastor way over-committed to a conference. He secured too many slots and not enough people signed up, so the church lost a lot of money. Or the time the worship pastor booked a concert in the auditorium, committed the church financially and with volunteers, and then found out the artist was hugely polarizing to the congregation. Or when a pastor signed a contract for services to the church, only to find out a key volunteer (and influencer) in the church offered the same services and was offended by not being able to at least offer a bid on the services.

And the list goes on.

I’m not addressing moral issues or major failures in this post. I’m primarily writing about mistakes all leaders make. We make them frequently. It’s part of being human and being a leader. Although both lists are very similar, this one we all need regularly. File it away for when you do. (By the way, these are fabricated scenarios. They aren’t specific situations I’m using as examples, but these types of mistakes are frequent in leadership.)

Chances are you’ve made similar mistakes. We all have. You’ve seen others make them. They look different every time and there are different characters in each story but the outcomes are similar. And the damage is just as damaging if not addressed properly.

Because a leadership principle we can never escape is:

The way you respond after a mistake always determines the quality of recovery.

So, when you’ve made the mistake – and admitting it to yourself is the first step – what do you do now?

Here are 5 suggestions:

  1. Communicate quickly

You don’t have to tell the world, but those who need to know should hear it from you and not from anyone else. Let the offended parties know and the people who will have to answer for the mistake. This can’t be done too soon. Surprises like this never turn out well, but with advance knowledge many times further damage can be averted

  1. Own it

Don’t make excuses. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Don’t blame others. Don’t say, “I’m sorry”, but then try to wrap the other person into your story. Ask forgiveness if necessary, but own it now. You made a mistake. Be a leader. Own the mistake and be willing to accept the consequences. You’ll be far more respected and stand a better chance of bridging support in the recovery process.

  1. Stop the loss

Do whatever you can to stop further harm from occurring. If there are financial issues involved, try to recover as much as you can. If there is collateral damage with relationships, apologize quickly and try to restore trust. I have found a humble (not martyred) but confident response is usually best in these situations.

  1. Figure out what’s next

Help the team recover. Find solutions. Don’t leave the clean-up to anyone else. As you lead into the mistake – or even better – lead through the recovery, help bring people together, seek wisdom, and help steer energy back to a more positive position.

  1. Learn from it

The best thing you can do is to grow from mistakes – all of them. They can shape us as people and leaders – either positively or negatively. The good news is that we get to decide which one. In the process of recovery, sometimes keeping a journal is helpful. Start with the question, “What can I learn from this that will help me make better decisions in the future?”

Of course, the intensity of need for this depends on the size of the mistake and the size of injury caused to the team, church or organization, but the principles still apply in context.

This was first published here.

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