“If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate,” IBM founder Thomas Watson once said.
Unlike many leaders, Watson walked the talk. When one of his new vice presidents made an error that cost the company $1 million, he assumed he’d be fired. “I’ve just invested $1 million in your education,” Watson laughed, “and you think I’m going to fire you?”
Unfortunately, this culture of embracing our blunders—especially catastrophic ones—is not as common in today’s corporate world. But it should be.
Over the years, I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I tried to run away from home at age 11, but ended up falling out of a window and landing on a slab of concrete ten feet below. Then there was the week-long, 400-kilometer Raid International Ukatak race in Canada, when my friends decided to cut weight by not bringing a tent. We ended up stranded at the edge of a cliff during the dead of winter.
I’ve also made plenty of miscalculations in my career—mistakes that didn’t just affect me, but everyone on the Spartan team, my family, and my friends. I’ve screwed up as a business owner, husband, father, son, and leader. But I believe what Watson preached. When you choose to learn from your gaffes, they make you more valuable to your organization, your family, and yourself.
No one is immune. We all royally screw up from time to time. It’s how we react that differentiates good leaders from great leaders.
Here are 5 things that great leaders never do after making a mistake:
1. Great leaders never hide.
When you realize you’ve screwed up, your first instinct might be to sweep the evidence under the rug and keep your head down until everything blows over. Fight that instinct.
I’ll never forget what Jeffrey Zeizel calls AAA: Action alleviates anxiety. Mistakes and failures often fuel fear, and they can make you want to hide. But the longer you hide, the worse the mistake will feel.
But if you cop to the mess you’ve made, you can get right to work fixing it.
2. Great leaders never blame.
An insecure leader may throw his team or a colleague under the bus, but a great leader owns his mistakes. As a leader, your job is to guide your team to the right action, and you set the example. When your team fails, so do you—but together, you learn and grow.
Great leaders aren’t afraid to show their vulnerable side to their team. This builds respect and trust and creates a culture that values mistakes as learning opportunities.
3. Great leaders never make excuses.
Shit happens. Great leaders accept that and immediately begin to think critically about where things went wrong. They examine their actions, and they make sure not to repeat the same mistake twice.
4. Great leaders never wallow.
Bad leaders let mistakes eat away at them. They start to doubt their capabilities, and they stop trying to improve. That’s no way to learn or grow.
Great leaders accept that they’re fallible and move on. That’s the thing that separates the good leaders from the great ones: the moving on.
5. Great leaders never try to fix it alone.
Asking for help is hard. It makes people feel vulnerable or inadequate, but it’s actually a strength. Great leaders know that they can’t run a company on their own. They need the entire team to succeed. Trust the intelligence and experience of the people you hired.
A lot of the errors I’ve made in business happened because I needed help and wouldn’t admit it. I didn’t listen to my team, or I made a decision without doing my homework. I tried to do too much, and things fell through the cracks. Thankfully, my colleagues were always there to help me figure out the next step.
In sports, great teams don’t care if the star quarterback fumbles or the cleanup hitter strikes out. They just care about what they do after that. Same in the business world. When a teammate screws up, great teams don’t quit. They rally.