by Terry Linhart
In a world dominated by the immediacy of digital communication and the pursuit of perfection, one phrase seems to have faded into the shadows of time: “I was wrong.” To err, as Alexander Pope once said, is indeed human, but to acknowledge those mistakes—especially in positions of leadership—has become almost superhuman. And, for those of us in the USA who have caught a rerun episode of the TV show Happy Days, we know that it was the unspeakable phrase for Fonzie.
This week, I was wrong. I made two mistakes that affected two people’s hopes for achievement. Though I admit it and was able actually to get the situation corrected a day later, it doesn’t make me feel better about being wrong on that day. I was speaking about it this week with a group of leaders in California, and we agreed that we don’t know what to do when we’re wrong.
It’s not that we’ve become infallible beings; mistakes, misunderstandings, and missteps are as frequent as ever. Instead, we’ve been swept up in a cultural tide that often equates admission of being wrong with weakness or incompetence. Leaders today often find themselves under pressure to maintain an image of infallibility, fearing that a single mistake could topple their reputations or credibility. Or at least get a nasty comment. (And I know some of you are saying back to me, “But a single mistake CAN topple a leader!!”)
Yet, history—and science—remind us that growth is often birthed from our blunders. Indeed, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, individuals who recognize and correct their mistakes demonstrate better adaptability and subsequently perform better in tasks.¹ Recognizing that one is wrong isn’t just a moral or ethical stance, but a practical one. And it often requires a grace-filled organization or team.
Leadership is, at its core, a journey. And just like any journey, it will have its misdirections and detours. The true strength of a leader is not in never making a mistake, but in how they respond when they inevitably do. For those moments, here are four steps to consider:
- Acknowledge Without Excuses. Before anything else, a simple, sincere acknowledgment goes a long way. “I was wrong” is a powerful statement, free from the baggage of justification or shifting blame. When we watch such a situation play out on TV with a famous person, we say, “If they would have handled it differently, it would have gone better.” A national study noted that leaders who genuinely admit their mistakes tend to be perceived as more humane, relatable, and trustworthy by their teams.² It shows vulnerability and, paradoxically, strength. And it usually works out better in the long run.
- Assess and Understand. It’s not enough to admit the error; understanding the root cause is key. This isn’t about self-flagellation but about growth. By dissecting where things got off track, leaders can identify patterns, blind spots, or areas of improvement. The post-mortem is not a session of blame but more like a classroom of (sometimes difficult) learning.
- Make Amends. An acknowledgment is the beginning, but action solidifies intent. Wherever possible, rectify the mistake. This could be in the form of a strategic pivot, an apology, or even financial compensation. The aim is to restore trust and demonstrate that accountability isn’t just a buzzword but a commitment. Finding out that I was wrong prompted me to explore why and turn a situation around for the positive.
- Foster a Culture of Openness. The leader’s response to being wrong can set a powerful precedent for the larger organization. Leaders can inspire innovation and risk-taking by encouraging a culture where mistakes are seen as opportunities for growth rather than failures to be concealed (just watch your local volleyball team and asses their culture for allowing risk-taking and mistakes).
If there’s a universal truth to leadership, it’s that no leader (no matter how skilled) can evade mistakes forever. And, let’s stop and think about that. That’s difficult to admit. No one likes being wrong… especially you and me. And our culture today is intolerant of even the littlest misstep.
What differentiates a good leader from a great one is the grace with which they handle those missteps. In an era that often prioritizes image over substance, there’s a profound power in humility, acknowledgment, and growth. When a leader can stand before their team, their organization, or even themselves and say, “I was wrong,” they are not showcasing a weakness but underscoring their strength, resilience, and commitment to growth.
In the end, to be wrong is to be human. And perhaps, in those moments of vulnerability and humility, we find the truest essence of leadership.
1. Halamish, V., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). When does feedback facilitate learning of words? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 37(1), 8.
2. Gino, F., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2008). Blinded by anger or feeling the love: How emotions influence advice taking. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(5), 1165–1173.