The CEO had just finished explaining that revenue was down, the forecast looked grim, and for the first time in several years, there would be no Christmas bonus.
His next words seemed to come from a completely different reality: “One thing we know for sure, our strategy is still strong!”
Wait, what? How is the growth strategy strong if the business is shrinking? Shouldn’t we at least re-evaluate to see how we can improve?
Unfortunately, too many leaders today are convinced that being right is more important than being honest. They believe that good leaders don’t make mistakes, and so they refuse to acknowledge or recognize when they have done something wrong.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The ability to admit you were wrong and explain how you’re going to help fix things is a key quality of great leaders.
In this article, we’ll take a look at 5 important reasons leaders should admit their mistakes
1) Admitting You Are Wrong Builds Trust
If we return to the CEO example, I imagine he believed that people needed to be comforted that everything would be ok because they had a confident leader.
After all, if people realize you’ve made a mistake, they may stop trusting you!
Ironically, by refusing to admit mistakes, leaders undermine their authority to a far greater degree than if they had just been honest from the start. People are not completely blind. If a leader says 2 + 2 = 3, even if he does it confidently, people will start to doubt the leader.
Everyone in the company knew there were problems with the strategy, so when the CEO tried to call everything great, no one believed him. Their trust started to erode, and the CEO never recovered.
Image by KC Green
Instead, if he had admitted that the strategy needed improvement and explained how the leadership team was focussed on creating a new path forward, then everyone would have been supportive.
Everyone makes mistakes, we all know this. Because of that, most people are willing to forgive when you admit to a mistake, especially if you have outlined an approach for correcting the mistake. This does not erode trust, but instead, demonstrates capable leadership worth trusting and following.
If anything, admitting your mistakes requires vulnerability, which is really a sign of strength.
2) Leaders are Responsible to their Flock
When you take a position of leadership, particularly one of teaching, you must also take some responsibility for the flock you lead.
Shepherds are responsible for leading the sheep, and if you lead them in the wrong direction, you must acknowledge this and correct the mistakes. To pretend you haven’t made a mistake can cause serious harm to the people you lead.
And yet, teachers really struggle to admit their faults. To create the book, The Great Sex Rescue, Sheila Wray Gregoire polled over 20,000 women about some of the common evangelical teachings about sex. She discovered that some popular, extra-biblical teachings on sex actually caused harm to marriages.
Gregoire was surprised how difficult it has been to work with other authors to change some of their teachings. They refused to admit that they were wrong. Towards the end of her book, she explained why it is so important that we admit these mistakes:
We are not saying authors and teachers can never make mistakes. Doing this survey was a humbling experience for me, as things I wrote many years ago pop up in my mind, causing me chagrin. We are all doing the best we can, and sometimes we will make mistakes. But when we put ourselves in a teaching position, we take on responsibility for those we teach. If we cause harm, we have a responsibility as teachers to amend our message to be more in line with Christ.
– Sheila Wray Gregoire, The Great Sex Rescue
I love Gregoire’s charitable words here for teachers. “We are all doing the best we can,” but sometimes our best can still be wrong. When we recognize that fact, it is good and healthy to admit our fault so that we can help protect our people and point them towards Christ.
3) Teachers Are Accountable to God
Not only are teachers and leaders accountable to their flock, but they are also accountable to God. James 3:1-2 says this,
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
Here’s the deal, if God is the one who will judge you for your teachings, then you cannot hide your mistakes. He sees everything – your heart, your mind, and your intentions.
You may be able to cover up mistakes with people, but not with God.
James reminds us that, “we all stumble in many ways,” so how can we avoid God’s judgment? By leaning into Christ’s work on the cross when we teach.
The work of Jesus makes us right before God, so when we make mistakes we can go to Him freely for forgiveness. Not only that, we can admit fault to others because our identity is not built on being perfect, but in the perfection of Jesus.
4) Admitting We Are Wrong Brings us Closer to Christ
In John 14:6, Jesus said that he is, “the way, the truth, and the life.” If we love Jesus, then we must also love the truth.
Refusing to admit when you were wrong is a refusal to acknowledge the truth. Refusing to admit you were wrong when you were wrong, then, is a rejection of Christ.
If we desire to grow closer to Jesus, then we must treasure the truth. We won’t always get things right, but that is ok! When we make mistakes, we simply need to confess them and continue pursuing the truth.
Admitting you are wrong should also create in us a desire to depend on Christ more. This dependence also brings us closer to Him and enables us to produce greater fruit. John 15:5-8 says,
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
If we refuse to admit when we’re wrong, then we refuse to admit we need Christ. The gospel frequently reminds us that we are sinners who desperately need a Savior, so it should not surprise us when we mess up. Embracing this idea should help us depend on Jesus even more when we teach.
5) Great Biblical Leaders Admitted They Were Wrong
Lastly, if you need examples of great leaders who admitted they were wrong, then look no further than the Bible.
Despite being a man after God’s own heart, King David engaged in egregious behavior against Bathsheba and her husband. When he was confronted, he collapsed in his remorse. Psalm 51 gives us insight into his heart of repentance:
1 Have mercy on me,O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
The Psalm continues along these same lines. David did not try to gloss over his actions. He did not shift the blame. He knew he had done wrong, and he knew he needed God’s forgiveness and help to be a better man going forward.
Peter made multiple mistakes and received constant corrections from Jesus. He even rejected Jesus three times during the crucifixion, but he learned from the mistakes and grew as a disciple. He would eventually become “the rock” upon which Jesus would build his church.
Even then, Peter still wasn’t perfect and had to be corrected by Paul in Antioch because of his treatment of Gentiles. But again, Peter repented and changed, and he continued to grow as a leader.
The Apostle Paul, likewise, did not shy from admitting his faults. In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul says that
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”
He knew he was a sinner, he knew he made mistakes. He had confidence in the saving work of Jesus, and knew there was no need to hide his imperfections because it only illuminated the importance of Jesus.
As a leader, your priority should always be your people, not protecting your own ego or image.
You don’t have to be perfect to be a good leader. This is good news, because you will make mistakes. Here’s more good news: by placing your identity in Christ, you get to rely on his perfection and righteousness.
Your plans may go awry. Your teachings may prove incorrect or unfruitful. You will sin at times and that sin could hurt your people.
In the end, as leaders we should always do our best, but we will never be perfect. Preach the gospel to yourself often, remember that Christ was perfect on your behalf.
And when you make a mistake, admit to it and help lead the way in correcting it.
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