The Secret Entrepreneur: The importance of admitting when you’re wrong

Fail to admit when you get it wrong and you'll see your best people walk, says our mystery CEO

There are two types of leader – those who aren’t afraid to say they’re wrong, and those who believe they can never show weakness, never admit to an error and that as the boss they’re always right.

The latter always come undone in the end. It can take a long time, but it’s inevitable and the damage that can be caused to a business as a result can be substantial. If you spot one in your company, you need to deal with it. Immediately. Trust me – I’ve been through this.

I think the expectation that the boss is always right is a hangover from the days when senior leaders often came from the armed forces, and from when industrialisation required a mass of people to perform basic actions precisely and repetitively.

In the knowledge economy this simply doesn’t work. If your firm requires menial labour, then eventually you’ll either be priced or innovated out of existence. If you want to succeed, you need engaged, intelligent staff who can think for themselves. The kind of people who won’t put up with being led by a fool.

Being wrong doesn’t make you a fool. Refusing to accept that you might be wrong, or are definitely wrong, certainly does. As a leader you have to make big decisions and tough calls, and you need to stand by them – but that means recognising when you screwed up as much as when you succeeded.

This isn’t just an issue for entrepreneurs, but all managers.

I’ve experienced this first hand with a senior manager who would never, ever admit to being wrong and once he made his mind up, simply wouldn’t listen to any other opinions. Sometimes this can seem like a strong, even attractive leadership trait – indeed I succumbed to this myself for a while as it made it easy it delegate tough tasks to him.

Soon the rot sets in though. People get worn down and simply stop bothering to challenge the obstinate manager, because it makes their life easier. They stop thinking, and worse they stop caring. The ultimate horror is when their reports start emulating this style, because that’s their role model. Your best team members, when faced with this, will often pack up their CV and leave.

It can be hard to spot this behaviour from above. After all, they won’t admit to mistakes and go to great lengths to defend themselves. Often those affected won’t speak up readily, especially if the person is very senior – it takes an awful lot of guts to do that.

I nearly realised the issue too late – but fortunately I got a wake-up call and managed to prevent the loss of some key staff, but only after a blazing confrontation (really, really doesn’t like being wrong!) an eventual ousting and a reshuffle. The mess took months to sort out and was one of the most exhausting processes of my life.

Talking to the key staff I managed to retain (who had already received confirmed offers elsewhere), they told me what made the difference to them which convinced them to stay – that I admitted my mistake in not picking up on this sooner, and then set about fixing my error.

Funny thing that.

Read previous Secret Entrepreneur columns here on Startups.co.uk.

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