past mistakes

How to move past mistakes and continue to lead confidently

Think about past mistakes you’ve made during your career.

What comes to mind?

Most of us will remember past mistakes that were big and some that were small. At Padraig, when we speak with clients, they remember how they felt at the time. Cringy. Embarrassed. Afraid.

The thing is, mistakes happen. Everyone makes mistakes. We work with leaders from all over, and we hear very similar kinds of stories:

I got the date wrong for a really important client meeting.

When I had to deal with team members, I lost my cool.

I made a decision in the moment that missed the mark.

I don’t know how I missed it [mathematical error, grammatical error, design flaw – fill in the blank!],
but I did and it was mortifying.

It was my call and it failed.

My instinct told me Jeff was overwhelmed but I ignored that.
It all ended badly for him and the company. It was on me.


The hard thing for most of us, especially when you make a mistake as a leader, is how to learn and move forward while not letting past mistakes shake your confidence.


Here’s how to move past mistakes and lead confidently:

Face the truth: Ignoring a mistake (or worse, trying to hide mistakes!) is never a good strategy. It’s far more productive to discuss a mistake, highlighting your ideas for mitigating damage or possible solutions, than to leave it to be discovered by someone else later. If you’ve made an error that hurt someone else, make a sincere apology. If you’re part of a team and something has happened, take responsibility for your part. If you realize someone on your team has made an error, address it with that person directly and privately in a non-accusatory way. Let the person be part of the solution first, maybe even the one to present it to the team to figure out the way forward. Organizations with coaching cultures thrive because mistakes are seen as opportunities to grow and do better.

Own your mistake and face your team: It’s not always easy to admit when we’ve made a mistake, but when you respond quickly and take responsibility then you’ll reassure everyone that you’re trustworthy and competent. Show that you accept responsibility, explain what you’ve learned and share what you will change in future. It’s inspiring for team members to see a leader be accountable and admit human fallibility — plus it’s modelling behaviour that will strengthen your team.

Don’t blame others: It’s tempting to deflect and point out all the other factors that contributed to a mistake, but blaming other folks (even if they were involved) is demoralizing. When you look at a situation and try to figure out how to avoid repeating a mistake, talk about processes and roles, not people. If appropriate, get stakeholders involved to help figure out how to close the gaps so they feel that they’re part of the solution (not your scapegoats!). Blaming others makes them feel worse, makes you look like you think you’re infallible and encourages your staff to hide or cover mistakes in the hopes of avoiding your finger pointing.

Refocus and realign: When you’ve admitted that you made a mistake, you have the opportunity to change. Sure, it might be humbling, but good leaders find the emotional courage to make mistakes and learn from them. Why? Because we aren’t going to make mistakes if we don’t experiment or innovate. Mistakes are part of growing and pursuing new opportunities. And taking a small hit to your ego now can actually pay bigger dividends in the future when your staff and colleagues trust you and come to you for guidance and coaching on their own challenges.

Look forward, not back: Even a massive error or mistake in judgement does not have to define the rest of your career. We talked earlier this year about learning from adversity to build resilience. A big part of this is being aware of our own inner voice. When you make a mistake, how do you frame that to yourself? Do you damn yourself? Do you approach mistakes in judgement or with curiosity? Consider the difference between:


  I’m an idiot. How stupid.


That was bad. What can I learn from this?

That’s it. Career over.


This is big, how can I troubleshoot solutions to minimize the damage?

 I never learn. I’m useless.


If I could do this over, I would change X, Y, Z.


Get support: Every leader needs a circle of safe, supportive people. It might be a mentor, a coach, a peer in another industry — whoever these people are, you can share your concerns and get some honest feedback. An outside perspective can really help us as leaders to feel empowered to face problems and figure out ways to fix them. Pro tip: Consider ways to harness the power of peer learning.

Stop beating yourself up: This can be really hard for some personalities (perfectionists, raise your hands!). It can be helpful to recognize that many of us are tougher on ourselves than on other people and we’ll magnify our own mistakes. Admit the mistake, learn from it and move on. If you catch yourself dwelling on it, consciously shift your focus to the future. What could this look like if you changed your outlook? Mistakes aren’t proof you’re a failure, but your ability to recover from them shows you are focused, resilient and able to persevere.

Adopt a positive mindset: What’s fixable? What are your next steps? When you have a plan or strategy for moving forward, you’ll feel more in control. That helps you get busy (less time to dwell and fret!) and realize what you’ve learned so you can move on from past mistakes.

Coach’s Questions:

How have you handled past mistakes? What could you do differently? What does this mean for you? For your team?