By Eric Barton
Taking responsibility for failure is the hallmark of a great leader. Here's how to win when things go wrong.
Right before the start of the
Ainslie – the most successful Olympic sailor in history, with five medals – is captain of the Land Rover BAR sailing team and has a penchant for come-from-behind victories.
On the final day of racing in
But the third heat changed everything. With the wind still barely blowing, Ainslie fought from third place to first, and the victory was enough for his team to clinch the entire event.
Looking back now, Ainslie said there’s a big reason his team managed the win. As captain, Ainslie was quick to take responsibility for the first two faults, and that meant his team could move on to the third heat without blame hanging over them.
“I could have had a group of guys looking at me in frustration. But we have guys who understand it’s OK to make mistakes,” said Ainslie. “My guys know, if you push and fail, it doesn’t have to be the end.”
That’s not an easy task for most leaders. Admitting you’re the reason something went wrong, owning up to the fact that your department or company failed is tough. But sucking it up, coming forward and learning from the experience is the hallmark of a great manager.
It’s human nature for people to want to take credit for what
went right and shift blame for what went wrong, said Oliver Donoghue, managing
director and co-founder of the Nonstop Recruitment Schweiz AG talent agency in
“What you need to learn is that it’s not the mistakes that define you,” Donoghue said, “it’s what you do with them.”
Nearly every type of team has the same problem with taking
responsibility when things go awry, said Jan Hagen, associate professor at ESMT
business school in
In the business world, middle managers often keep their
heads down when things go wrong, fearing that reporting a problem means they’ll
take the blame,
The problem with this system of denial is that you lose out
on the chance to learn from the mistake,
“When things go right, we talk about it and we learn from
It's crucial for managers to learn the right way to take
responsibility for a setback, said David Rodnitzky, CEO of 3Q Digital, a media
That kind of analysis will help you survive the fallout from your superiors or stockholders. As well, admitting to the mistake will help you with your subordinates, Rodnitzky said. Blaming yourself for the mistake, instead of someone on your staff, breeds loyalty.
Good managers will also learn that taking responsibility doesn’t always include the successes, Rodnitzky said. When things go well, it’s time to give credit to someone else. “There’s an old adage every manager should live by: accept responsibility and delegate credit,” Rodnitzky said.
Rejecting your ego
Cristina Mariani-May recently experienced firsthand how difficult it was to admit she was wrong.
Her family owns New York-based Banfi Wines, which has exported Italian wine worldwide since 1919. Since 1978, it has also owned a Tuscan vineyard.
It was her father, John Mariani, who came up with the idea seven years ago of opening a hotel on their seven-acre Italian property. During a meeting in the Montalcino office they share, he suggested the company could run the hotel themselves. Mariani-May argued they needed to bring in an expert. Things got heated, and it seemed like there was no compromise.
Mariani-May agreed to study the two options. Two years later, after checking with other winery owners, she came back to her father with a difficult answer: He was right.
“I had to swallow my pride, and I had to admit I was wrong,” Mariani-May recalled. “It wasn’t easy, but once I took credit for making the wrong decision, we could move on.”
Five years ago the company opened Castello Banfi il Borgo, a
privately run 14-room hotel on the grounds of a 12th Century castle. Since
then, Condé Nast Traveler ranked it among the best hotels in
“That’s one of the assets of good management. Don’t go into any big project with ego, and be ready to admit when you’ve made a mistake.”