On January 11th, I turned on the MLB network to find Mark McGwire admitting to steroid use during his baseball career. I confess I wasn’t all that shocked, but I was still hurt. As a junior at Emory University, I remember exactly where I was in my dorm room when he hit the home run that was to break the single-season, home-run record of Roger Maris. With the admission that he took steroids during that season (as well as others), my fond memory of McGwire hitting number 62 – almost missing first base, lifting his son with a hug when he touched home, hugging Sammy Sosa who was also in the running for breaking the record, and giving the Maris family a hug in the stands – was officially stained.

The week prior to this disappointing news, I was watching CNBC as Gerald Levin admitted he was at fault for the “worst deal of the century” between Time Warner and AOL. As the CEO and man in charge, he was taking full responsibility and apologized for the pain and suffering he had caused.

All of these apologies got me thinking…when and how should people, leaders in particular, admit to mistakes and apologize for wrong-doing? Some say swift and quick action is best, others believe apologies should be crafted and staged, while some feel that leaders should never apologize because it is a sign of weakness and they risk “loosing face.”

Yale Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld knows something of the subject, and observed that Levin’s admission was quite different from leaders of the past (read his thoughts here). Sonnenfeld has written several books and articles focused on how leaders bounce back from failure, and in particular, how leaders should own up to their mistakes in a timely manner, admit when they are in the wrong or have failed, and ultimately move forward. Doing so shows an authenticity, genuineness, and class that leaders need to demonstrate when acknowledging mistakes and failures. In order to avoid repeating the same mistakes again in the future, there is a need for leaders to communicate what exactly went wrong.

We are all imperfect, mistakes…inevitable. Next time you find you have erred, think back on Sonnenfeld’s recommendations for dealing with failure: (a) acknowledge responsibility; (b) show remorse and contrition; and finally, (c) atone and reform.

What are your thoughts concerning when and how leaders should admit their mistakes and failures? Share your experiences, knowledge, and lessons learned so we can all benefit.


Baseball Photo credit: Marcus McCurdy   Lightbulb failure photo credit: Beat Küng 




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