Great Leaders Still Make Mistakes

At the beginning of our leadership workshop, we have an exercise where the participants are asked to list the characteristics of both great and poor leaders.  The poor leader list usually has characteristics like: controlling, demeaning, power hungry, credit thief, selfish, and mean.  The great leader list generally includes: empowering, provides feedback, humble, team oriented, approachable, and shares information.

When we ask the participants if great leaders have demonstrated any of the poor leader characteristics, the response is “of course, they’re not perfect.”  They are still recognized as being great leaders because they continually work hard at being great leaders — setting high expectations for themselves and others. Jeff Bezos has received several awards in recognition of being one of the great business leaders of our time, but even he has been known to slip up in his delivery of feedback.  Here are some of his less than perfect comments as recounted by Brad Stone in The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon:

  • “If that’s our plan, I don’t like our plan.”
  • “Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”
  • “Are you trying to take credit for something you had nothing to do with?”
  • “Are you lazy or just incompetent?”
  • “I trust you to run world-class operations and this is another example of how you are letting me down.”
  • “If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.”
  • “Does it surprises you that you don’t know the answer to that question?”
  • [After someone presented a proposal] “We need to apply some human intelligence to this problem.”
  • [After reading a narrative] “This document was clearly written by the B team. Can someone get me the A team?”

Although great leaders most often demonstrate effective leadership behaviors, they do make mistakes.  But what makes them great is they quickly admit their mistake, sincerely acknowledge the misstep, and move on.

Empower your leaders to admit their mistakes and you’ll develop more successful leaders.

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