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After Further Review: Four Keys For Handling Leadership Errors

by | Jul 14, 2021

“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates

Face it: None of us like to admit we’re wrong. I’ve been a sports official for over 30 years, working every level from peewee football to college baseball and football. Over those years, I’ve literally made thousands of game-impacting decisions, with probably 98% of them being correct. Unfortunately, no matter how hard you study the rules, review game film and hustle on the field to get in position, even the most competent officials make mistakes. Thankfully, because of instant replay, many of the most egregious errors are corrected with a simple phrase: “After further review …”

As business leaders, we make critical decisions daily, ranging from simple things such as setting meeting agendas to more impactful calls related to vision, strategy and people. The most successful leaders get it right all the time — except for when we don’t. So, the question becomes: how do we handle a leadership error? Here are four keys to help turn that mistake into an opportunity.

Be Open To New Information

When a member of our college football officiating crew thinks someone has missed a call, they simply say, “I have information you need.” This is important because in order to make correct decisions, we need all the information.

Unfortunately, leaders are often blinded by their egos, causing them to miss important factors related to their decisions. Successful leaders must be willing to receive all relevant information, even if it’s inconvenient or painful. This involves setting aside the “win at all cost” mentality and developing intentional listening skills so we can accurately process the facts. Most critically, when faced with new information, we must be open to the possibility that we’ve made an error. Remember, correct decisions can’t be made unless we have all the information.

Acknowledge Your Mistake

Once it’s clear you’ve made an error, simply own it. Too many leaders blame their mistakes on outside circumstances or other team members. At best, this is short-sighted, and at worst, undermines your authenticity and credibility.

Several years ago, on the last play of a rivalry football game, I ruled a catch was completed for the game-winning touchdown. After reviewing game video, it was obvious I had made a major mistake that cost a team an important win. I immediately called the head coach and apologized for my error.

Did it change the outcome of the game? No, but the coach was genuinely appreciative of my honesty and commitment to excellence. That simple phone call also resulted in a long friendship that continues to this day. The same is true in our professional lives. Acknowledging mistakes may not change the impact of a decision, but it can help lay a foundation for trust and respect moving forward.

Learn From Your Mistake

Our mistakes can teach us a lot — if we let them. Legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant said, “When you make a mistake, there are only three things you should ever do about it: admit it, learn from it, and don’t repeat it.”

I believe great leaders are forged in the crucible of failure. As a result, when faced with an error, leaders must ask, “Why did this happen?” Answering this question requires an honest evaluation of our decision-making process, contributing factors influencing the decision and our underlying motivations. Most importantly, once we answer the question, we must identify steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. All leaders make mistakes. Great leaders simply don’t repeat them.

Move On

After an error, we have to intentionally decide to move on.

In the third inning of a collegiate championship baseball game, I called a third strike to end the inning. I knew I blew it. The batter knew I blew it. The manager knew I blew it. In fact, everyone in the ballpark knew the pitch was low and outside. I was embarrassed and frustrated to have made such a visible error in such an important game. In that moment, however, I was faced with a choice. Two-thirds of the game remained to be played and I needed to regroup. After a brief, albeit slightly heated conversation with the manager, I put on my face mask, resumed my position behind the plate, and went on to call a pretty solid game.

You see, sports officials aren’t afforded the luxury of shutting down after an error, and the same is true for leaders. When faced with an error, leaders must find ways to recalibrate mentally and physically in order to be effective on the next play. Sports officials often remind each other we’re not defined by our last call — and we’re only as good as our next call. This also is true for leaders. The stakes are too high because another decision is coming. We must move on because we can’t afford to blow the next decision as well.

When confronted with possible errors, leaders must embrace an attitude of humility, allowing them to be open to important information that might have been initially missed. Once this information is processed, leaders must be willing to admit the mistake, learn from it and move on, better prepared for the next opportunity.

I speak from experience. Over the years, I’ve reversed a few calls on the athletic field, as well as in my personal and professional life. Because of these experiences, I was able to grow and improve as a sports official, a person and a leader. Most importantly, in every one of these instances, the reversal resulted in getting the call right. That’s worth remembering, because, after all, shouldn’t that be our goal in the first place?

Lavon Gray is a certified leadership coach and popular speaker and trainer in educational and corporate organizations across the U.S.