top of page


Mistakes were made...Every time I hear that phrase, I cringe...How about you?

Mistakes were made--so vague, so passive, so un-leaderlike.

Yet, people keep using it. It screams out from the headlines and assaults our ears from the TV.

Mistakes were made. At first it looks like the leader is taking responsibility for the mistakes. But study your English grammar a little more closely and another picture emerges.

Mistakes were made. What does it really mean? 'Mistakes' is the subject of the sentence in this passive voice. But the object of the sentence--by whom--is implied. By whom? We don't know.

Mistakes were made. What the leader is really saying is, "OK, folks, we tried to hide the mistakes but now you've got the evidence so we have to say something that sounds like we're on top of it and sounds like we're taking responsibility. It buys us time to decide whom to sacrifice...whom to throw over the back of the troika to the wolves--the press, the public, or the employees? Maybe, while they're gnawing on those bones, we can think of something else to divert their attention."

Mistakes were made, indeed! The first mistake is that we made a bad decision. But we compound it by ignoring it, covering it up, blaming someone else or taking actions that are incorrect. There is only one correct answer.

"I made a mistake. I take responsibility. Here's what I'm doing to fix it. Here is what I've learned and how I will apply that in the future. I will take the consequences."

I interviewed a variety of leaders for my book on strategic leadership, Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers. They had a track record for translating their vision into reality, transforming their organizations. I asked each, "What was your worst business decision and what did you do about it?" They all had similar reports. These are typical:

"There was a story in the newspapers about a major mistake that we made. You can make excuses for it or you can be transparent about what happened. I sat with the media and I walked them through it and they accurately described it to the public. I hope other companies who read the story will learn from it. But the key is to take an adverse incident like that and turn it into something that we can learn from so it doesn't happen again."

"Mistakes? I've made some doozies! The ones I've always regretted were the ones where I reacted and said something I didn't mean or that was based on incorrect information. One was very visible and I was confronted by a reporter with an email that I had sent. I learned a lot from by boss that day about what a great executive does. He told me to go immediately to everyone on the list and apologize and be humble. It was hard but I did it. The press kept going but all but one individual was satisfied. I learned a lot from that."

How do you create that environment of responsibility for the entire company? Listen to another CEO:

"I want everyone to see our corporate values walking down the hall every day. Let's combine the mind and the heart. It's all about having a mission, and a culture. They've heard so much about making money, budget, and business plans. When we switched back to emphasizing the mission, the values and the culture, the metrics followed and we went from single digit returns to double digit returns."

Nary a one of the CEOs I interviewed said 'mistakes were made' or any of its variants. Their message was clear. Real leadership, strategic leadership, is about taking responsibility every day for the decisions you make and living your values in your actions. What lessons are we teaching our employees and colleagues?

I have some advice: Let's ban that despicable phrase, 'Mistakes were made,' from the language. Let's take full responsibility for our bad decisions, learn from them AND take the consequences. Let's demonstrate our values 'walking down the hall.'

What's the "mistakes" culture like in your organization? Are people rewarded for accepting full responsibility or are the thrown under the bus? Does every leader take responsibility for his or her mistakes? Or is blame the name of the game and "mistakes were made?"

Read more if the "mistakes" interviews and insights on strategic leadership in Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers.


bottom of page