Leaders make mistakes, just like anybody else. And when they do mess up, it’s essential – if they want to remain credible and not lose the trust of their employees – that leaders own up to their errors and hold themselves accountable.
I had a front-row seat for one of the most egregious mistakes ever made by a high-level leader in the history of the United States. And what made it worse – for him and the country – was that President Richard Nixon didn’t own up to it, and instead tried to cover it up.
I was working in the White House then, eventually becoming Appointments and Cabinet Secretary for Gerald Ford after he replaced Nixon, who was forced to resign on Aug. 9, 1974, due to the June 17, 1972, break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office Building. Nixon resigned to avoid certain impeachment. He was unwilling to acknowledge that he knew about the break-in and continued to cover that up for many months, until he had no credibility left.
In the decades since Watergate, of course, we’ve often seen public figures cover up mistakes, or not being willing to express regret or acknowledge errors, and almost always the coverup is worse than the mistake.
Three great qualities of leadership are transparency, honesty and vulnerability. When a leader practices each of those qualities, his or her trust factor and respect factor among employees and peers increases. Also, the company culture can then become more solid because a strong ethical example is being set at the top. Therefore, it’s critical that a leader admit when he or she makes a mistake, and just as importantly, explain the acknowledgement as well.
However hard it might be, leaders of any organization, small to large, have to be willing to admit they’ve made errors. One big mistake doesn’t necessarily have to mean the end of their tenure or the downslide of their business or organization. If a leader handles it correctly, it might even be a turning point in a positive direction.
It Shows Strength To Be Vulnerable
Leaders don’t know everything. They don’t have all the answers. If they acknowledge those facts, it creates an opportunity for collaboration with their colleagues, which opens the possibilities for more and fresher ideas, solutions and strategies. It allows leaders to have a different, more open and productive dialogue with people. It shows the kind of humility, vulnerability and relatability that makes for a stronger leader because those qualities make them easier for people to follow.
But many leaders have a tough time admitting they don't know. Their egos are in the way. They think they’re supposed to have all the answers. We went through a period of time in world history when we simply thought the best leaders were the smartest people, but it takes a lot more than smarts to make it all work. We’ve actually lived through decades of expecting leaders to be strong and have all the answers – a command-and-control type of leadership.
But that’s really not the era we’re living in today. I think there’s a greater sensitivity surrounding leadership these days. Good leaders are ones to be trusted, who speak the truth, admit they don’t know, and seek counsel and advice from other people. That’s a great change historically from where we’ve been in terms of how strong leadership has been characterized or perceived.
Why the change? I think we’ve been caught up in the last 30 years in numerous significant events that prove leaders not only don’t know everything, they get caught flat-footed like the rest of us and struggle to find quick solutions. There’s no better example of that than COVID-19. And there’s been SARS, HIV and AIDS, the swine flu, the dot-com bubble/tech crash of 2000, the Great Recession of 2008, and now we could be heading into another recession. We’ve seen an acceleration of challenging events for leaders, and they’re frequently stunned by what’s happening. The degree to which leaders can open up about that and embrace input from others will make them better and stronger leaders.
Seeing Outside Their Bubble
Millennials have driven the new definition of modern leadership. There are 75 million millennials in the workforce who feel strongly that leaders should be open and trustworthy; that leaders should be forward-thinking; and in getting a sense of what’s coming at us in the future, that leaders should be proactive, not reactive, and very importantly, be collaborative.
So we’re entering a new era of leadership – more externally-facing leadership than internally-facing. Leaders will have to be much more aware of what’s going on in the broader world from a macro sense, because it has an impact on their businesses, family and communities. COVID is an example. It’s been all-encompassing and we saw many leaders who didn’t know how to respond.
There will still be leaders who will bury their heads in the sand and only worry about getting widgets out the door and cars out of the factory. But there are other leaders who are looking at the context within which the world is functioning. And those who can admit they made a mistake or that they don’t have all the answers. These more humble, more vulnerable, more communicative and collaborative types of leaders will be the strongest and most successful going forward in an uncertain world.
About Warren Rustand
Warren Rustand is an entrepreneur, corporate leader, and the ForbesBooks author of The Leader Within Us: Mindset, Principles, and Tools for a LIFE BY DESIGN.