What Great Leaders Know About Screwing Up

I’m not going to lie. I’ve screwed up a lot in life.

I’ve made all kinds of mistakes – both stupidly mild and fairly serious.

  • I’ve forgotten the names of people I know and pretended to know people I’ve never met
  • I’ve said the wrong thing — or done the wrong thing – and hurt people’s feelings
  • I’ve crashed cars and parked illegally
  • I’ve spent too much money and failed to pay my bills on time

I’ve hated them all — each and every mistake.  

At the same time, because I’ve made so many I’ve also learned a thing or two.

  • First, I’m going to screw up. Regularly. We all do.
  • Second, even if it feels otherwise, my screw-ups will not put a violent end to my relationships, my business or the world. At least they haven’t yet.
  • Third, sometimes screwing up is a good thing because it means I’m willing to take risks, or because it teaches me a lesson that makes me better in the end.

Despite what I’ve learned, I still hate screwing up – tend to beat myself up over each mistake.

I know many others who feel the same. I also know plenty others who are the exact opposite.

In fact, when it comes to making mistakes, it would seem there are two types of people in this world: those who beat themselves up for every little thing, and those who can’t admit their mistakes to themselves and/or others.

What I’ve learned, however, is that there is a third type. And these people have a unique gift.

Sure, they make mistakes like the rest of us. But they don’t get defensive. They don’t beat themselves up. Instead, these people screw up, they fix it, they move on.


I envy them. I strive to be like them. And so I’ve developed a formula to deal with my screw-ups. Like them.

It isn’t perfect, and I still work on it every day. But day by day, I’m getting better at it – ever closer to being the leader I want to be.

I present to you now this formula for dealing with screw-ups — in five steps.

Step # 1: Know it

The first thing you need to know when you screw up is that…you’ve screwed up. This is easier for some of us (who beat ourselves all the time) than others (who refuse to believe it ever happens).

Let me ask you this. Do you know anybody…anybody…who’s never made a mistake? Never failed to meet a deadline or respond to an email or make everybody like them?

Me neither. So stop thinking you’re special.

Step #2: Own it

Great leaders know the very first thing to do once they’ve screwed up is to own it.

Their first words are simple. “I screwed up.”

It’s when we fight it and get defensive that others see a harsher truth: that we are not confident, that we are afraid of being seen as inept, that we are certain that one error means we’ll lose all respect.

The truth is, owning it gets respect.

An example — I was just online checking out hotels for an upcoming trip and found one of those sites with reviews from people who stayed there.

You know the kind of site – where everybody complains about something. Sure enough, every hotel had some negative comments.

Some hotels ignored them all.

Others responded to each one, owned each mistake. They were gracious, apologized, and talked about how they were using the feedback to improve.

They were the ones I booked.

Step #3: Apologize…Right

A vendor of mine failed to meet a deadline last week. The project was supposed to arrive in my inbox Friday. It came in two days later, only after I emailed them a reminder.

Their apology started out strong: “I’m so sorry…”

Then it went wrong. They proceeded to tell me how crazy their Friday was, about all of the chaotic reasons they weren’t able to send the project to me on time.

I didn’t care. What I cared about was that they missed their deadline, that they were sorry, that it wouldn’t happen again.

When you screw up, avoid the temptation to give all kinds of excuses as to why. Instead, apologize immediately, be sincere, and know that sometimes people will forgive you and sometimes they won’t.

And there’s nothing you can do about it, except do your best to make it right.

Step #4: Make it right

Which leads me to my next point. Sometimes we don’t have the option to fix a situation when we screw up. But sometimes we can make it right somehow.

We can pay someone the money to repurchase a lamp we broke in their home. We can offer up a discount or a freebie if we’re doing business with them. We can talk it through with them and soothe hurt feelings.

A few months ago I completely spaced a coffee meeting. I didn’t realize it until my coffee date called to say she was at the determined location in San Diego, and I was heading up to L.A. Immediately I bought her a Starbucks card and sent it out that day, along with a carefully worded note.

It didn’t make it right necessarily, but it showed her I meant what I said when I apologized by phone. And that felt like a good start.

Step #5: Let it go

We’ve arrive at our final step. If you’ve gotten this far you’ve done pretty much all you can do.

Which means it’s time to let it go.

Learn from the screw up, figure out how to keep it from happening again, and then let it go.

This, of course, is easier said than done. I for one need to process before I can let go of a screw up – talk it through with someone I trust, write it out, or just visualize letting it roll off of me.

Figure out what works for you, then do it.

You’re too good to carry that kind of baggage around.


We all screw up. That’s a fact.

Great leaders know it. They just handle it better than the rest of us.

But when we follow the five steps above, at least we know we’re gaining on them.

Now, go do good…and do it well.


5 thoughts on “What Great Leaders Know About Screwing Up

  1. Gidon says:

    very nice!

    This immediately reminded me of the traditional steps of fixing wrongs in Judaism (in shorthand, repentance).

    I found this short article that you could read and compare! (obviously, I am not promoting religion here, just providing an anthropological exhibit.

    1. Gidon says:

      oops – I screwed up!:-)

      here’s the link:

  2. Patty Costa says:

    Thank you Deirdre for this necessary reminder. I was one of those who beat myself up. Very easy for me to admit a mistake even if it wasn’t my fault. But I’m getting better as I’m loving myself more. I can’t just delete the “guilt botton” in my head! But sometimes the guilt is too much to bear. So I decide if I’m really guilty or if it’s just an old tape. And act accordingly.

  3. Tina Inscoe says:

    Well done Deirdre. I am sure that many will recognize themselves in your examples. Personally the # that I struggle with most is the last step – letting it go. What I have found though is that with age and life experience (i.e. perspective), I am getting better at letting it go!

    I also agree with not making excuses – it does not get you anywhere and often is destructive. Thanks for inviting me in…

  4. Rhonda Rhyne says:

    As usual, Deirdre speaks the (painful) truth and offers insightful resolutions. Keep it coming!

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