Mistakes Happen!

Most leaders discover fairly early that mistakes happen.

I remember my first “major” mistake as a youth pastor.  It was not really that big of a mistake.  Someone had asked me shortly before the service started if I would announce something.  I said I would, and decided to rely on my memory instead of writing it down.  An hour later, when I stepped up to the microphone my mind went blank, and I stammered my way through reading a few of the printed announcements and went to my seat.  After the service I was confronted by the person who had made the request.  He was irate and angrily confronted me.  In addition he blamed the senior pastor, and indicated that it was one more intentional insult aimed personally at him.

I had barely met this man before, and had no reason to insult him.  I was completely taken aback by this accusation, and I am pretty sure I stammered out an apology before I walked back to my office, and then later home, in a daze.

It was not long after that that my pastor, Larry Thomson, gave me what still ranks among the best leadership advice I have ever received.  He taught me that the two most important words a leader can say is, “I’m sorry.”  The five most valuable words are, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.”. The ten most valuable words are, “I’m sorry.  I was wrong.  Will you please forgive me?”

Because I received this advice so early in y leadership life it really stands out when I see many leaders (sometimes myself included) implement it so poorly.  It astonishes me that people often do not know what to do when mistakes happen.

I’m Sorry

The first response following a mistake is to express regret or empathy.  I love the formal German expression “Es tut mir Leid”, which literally means “It causes me pain.”.

Often what is unfortunately communicated is an extreme lack of empathy!  There is no sharing of  the sorrow or pain caused by the result of their action.  The pain comes from being confronted, from being caught, or from being questioned.  The words “I’m sorry” seem to be said to make the discussion end quicker.  Everyone knows when an apology is insincere, even when the person making it thinks they are fooling people.  The classic yoga pants apology will forever live in infamy as en example of poor apologies.  All of the blame is firmly placed on other people.

Because mistakes happen, we need to be willing to recognize that those mistakes cause discomfort.  Sometimes we feel the discomfort is or pain is out of proportion – like an angry response to a missed announcement.  An empathetic response on my part would have searched for the cause of that pain, and apologized for contributing to it.  Unfortunately, when the response is out of proportion, we often label the other person (angry, weird, unfriendly, etc.) rather than increasing the empathy.

I was wrong.

After we have recognized that pain was caused, and have expressed empathy, it is important to acknowledge responsibility.  I personally find that admitting that I was wrong is a lot harder than just saying I am sorry.

You may be familiar with the 3 C’s of hiring.  According to this tool, a  good hire has Character, Chemistry, and Competence.

Making a mistake impacts all 3 of the C’s. I was confronted in the lobby of the church, directly after the service.  I had been hired by the church before I was finished with college, and I was fairly sensitive in the area of competence.  I felt I had to prove myself.  However, because this man had previously been hurt, he was not just questioning my competence, he also felt our character as staff needed to be addressed.  Very limited previous conversation with the individual added a bad Chemistry ingredient, which only made the situation more awkward.

This is true in other venues.  An inferior product is primarily a Competence issue.  Licking donuts in a shop without paying for them is a character issue.  Constantly having actions misinterpreted is a red-flag for a chemistry issue.

The degree of difficulty in admitting you are wrong is often directly tied to how much importance you attach to a certain “C”, and your willingness to see how important it is to the other person.  If you are insecure in your own abilities and really like being right, a question in the area of competence could push a hot-button.  For others, any issue that happens to call their character into question is difficult for them to handle.

And it is exactly in those areas that we as leaders have to work hard at admitting we were wrong.  In spite of the fact that I like to come across as competent, when I don’t fulfill reasonable expectations from someone, I need to admit that I was wrong.  If someone questions my motivation, I may feel my character is being questioned.  Even if that is hard for me to process, I need to apologize if my motivations are truly out of line.

Will you please forgive me?

The next step in the process is asking for forgiveness.  On the level of vulnerability, this is at the top.  So far, we have remained in control. We have been empathetic.  We have owned our part of the conflict.  At this point, we are putting someone else in control of the situation.  We are asking them to grant us something that is completely out of our control.  We are requesting grace, even though our actions have caused pain.

In some situations, this question can be very healing.  Reconciliation can take place, and parties can move forward.  Unfortunately, it does not always work that way.  Sometimes forgiveness is withheld, or granted only stingily, and things can become more difficult.  But this does not remove the responsibility from the offending party to seek to make things right.

And it is really when we take this last step of vulnerability that people begin to see the sincerity of our apology.  When we make ourselves vulnerable, and put the moving forward process to a large degree in the hands of the person offended, we empower them.  We allow them to set direction.  We give them a voice.  We actually make strides in acknowledging their competence, thanking them for having the character to address us, and are communicating how important the chemistry is.

The Blind Spots of handling wrongs.

Brock Turner, a former Stanford University student has recently been in the news.  After being convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman at a fraternity party, he faced up to 14 years in prison.  The judged sentenced him to only six months.  His father wrote a letter explaining that although his son was sorry and devastated by what took place, he was actually a victim of a variety of things, including depression, not fitting in, and extreme homesickness.  He argued that he should receive only probation, not jail time – and said that the life-long implications of what his son had done was “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.”

While there was an acknowledgement of sorrow – the devastation expressed by Turner and his father seems to be sorrow at the loss HE experienced.  He does not admit to wrong doing.  He does not own the pain of his victim.  She wrote:

“You said, I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life,”

“Ruin a life, one life, yours, you forgot about mine. Let me rephrase for you, I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin two lives. You and me. You are the cause, I am the effect. …

“You have dragged me through this hell with you, dipped me back into that night again and again. You knocked down both our towers, I collapsed at the same time you did. Your damage was concrete; stripped of titles, degrees, enrollment. My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”

Do you see what she is saying?  In our pain induced blindness we fail to recognize that what we have done has consequences on OTHERS.  The primary consequences are not on how people perceive us as leaders (or people).  The primary consequences are on the people we caused pain to.  Secondary pain is felt by us.  As leaders deal with the primary pain first – the pain caused to others by your mistake.  Then deal with your own pain.

Mistakes happen!  But leaders learn to respond to them well.