Even when they fail, great leaders believe in their abilities. Acknowledging and learning from mistakes allows you to lead by example, and encourages your team to see mistakes not as the end of the line, but as the beginning of growth.

I have seen time and again how the committed take responsibility for their actions. In our high-litigation culture, there's always someone else to blame. It can be easy to point the finger at suppliers, underlings, partners, and managers that just can't seem to get things right. I have yet to meet this mass of completely incompetent workers, which leads me to think we might be trying to steer some of the fault away from where it belongs--onto ourselves.

True leaders pull the thumb, before they point the finger

They take responsibility... for EVERYTHING. They turn each misstep into an opportunity to learn from the mistake instead of pointing figures: they pull the thumb and ask themselves "what could I have done differently?" They find a lesson while others only see a problem. They privately address their subordinates' mistakes with them, but take the blame publicly without dissent. If someone slipped up, they pick them up, they don't point the finger and pass the blame.

When you lead a group of people, they become reflections of yourself.

Leaders pass the credit and take the blame

An effective leader is someone who inspires those beneath them. If you pass blame and take credit, if your team clocks in at nine and checks out at five, if they make no mistakes and only send you finely-crafted emails and reports, congratulations, you're a manager. Not a leader. Leaders recognize that an inspired team not only produces great work, but regularly strive beyond that extra mile to ensure success. Passing credit onto those under you is the best, and the easiest, way to do this. Why?  A leader is nothing without their team.

In classical warfare, if an army loses, is it because a single person failed in his duties, or turned coat too early? No. More likely it was because they were in the wrong position, advanced too early, or what have you.

If an army wins, is it because one unit, or one captain, made a daring charge, or was in the right place at the right time? No. It is because every single person performed admirably in each of their roles.

See the difference? Failures are often the result of bad leadership, and passing the blame onto those beneath them is not only misplaced, but discouraging. Successes, on the other hand, are wholly based on the performance of every individual effort. And assuming the credit for oneself is not only selfish, but alienating. Managers fight battles, leaders win wars.

The first step to finding a solution to a problem is admitting you have a problem. From my experience, the reluctance of good leaders to accept the blame for mistakes has its roots in two misconceptions of what mistakes really are.

Mistakes are an opportunity

A common error is assuming that once a mistake has been committed, or revealed, that it is the end of the line. Work often screeches to a halt while the extent of the mistake is exposed, and the culprit brought to justice. All hands are called to the pumps in order to craft a solution in secret, away from judging eyes.

This unfortunate habit leaders have picked up instills a natural fear of mistakes in everyone. Mistakes should not be feared, but expected, and often encouraged. They should be used as an opportunity to teach team members, new employees, interns, and managers.

Leaders who expect one-hundred per-cent perfection from their team will not only work in a very silent office, but receive late emails, and stifle creativity. Why? Because people are naturally afraid of making mistakes, being called out, and being embarrassed in public. A leader who assumes the blame, and passes the credit, sends a message that mistakes are OK, and that when they happen it will be an opportunity to learn and grow. By inspiring those beneath you, your employees will emulate your best traits, which will include assuming the blame for themselves.

Mistakes are NOT failures

A fatal flaw in modern leadership is equating mistakes with failure. Without waxing trite, I will refrain from numerous anecdotes relating the importance of "getting back on the horse" or "we only truly fail when we give up"; all are applicable. The moral hazard in not differentiating the two is employees who almost expect the assignment to be taken from them the moment a mistake is committed and reassigned to someone else. Because a failure means the end of their contribution. It's done.

However, ensuring that you understand the difference, and that your employees do, too, results in everyone recognizing that mistakes are to be remedied by those who erred, with the expectation that the stewardship was given to them to complete a task, and a mistake does not invalidate that trust. Associating failure with mistakes demonstrates a lack of trust in those to whom you delegate. But by allowing employees to internalize the responsibility given to them, it becomes easier to give credit where it is due.

Leaders pull the thumb instead of point fingers. They inspire and encourage. They are perceptive and honest. If a leader is truly transparent for a moment, they will recognize they truly had no claim on any of the credit at all in the first place. Instead, a true leader can see the minute contributions that everyone has made to their success. So, in truth, being a good leader is really just learning to be a decent human being. And that is easy enough.

Published on: Oct 2, 2017