How to Own a Failure (And Still Preserve Your Reputation)

Maybe it was small, maybe it was big. You messed up, and every time you think about it you start to cringe. And as much as you desperately want to sweep it under the rug, you know, you’re probably better off dealing with it.

It helps to remind ourselves, failure plays a role in any successful endeavor. Steve Jobs was fired from his own company, Oprah lost her anchor position covering local news, and after driving overnight through a snowstorm in 1961, the Beatles were told by huge music executives that they would never succeed.  You can probably think of many less famous examples as well.

In the face of failure, exceptional leaders, thinkers, and creators still rise.

Here are three tips to help you do the same:

Own it… even if you aren’t 100% responsible
We see CEOs (the good ones anyway) apologizing on behalf of their teams all the time. Over the course of your career, you’re probably going to have to do the same.

It’s tempting to want to pin the blame on someone else, a process, or a group. Yet, even if the failure is not entirely on you, owning your part makes you a more trustworthy and accountable leader.

When you say I should have reviewed that, or I didn’t allocate enough time, you’re letting your boss know that you understand what went awry and they don’t need to point it out for you. Good bosses want you to learn from your failures, so show them that you already have.

Don’t jump to “I’m sorry”
In an effort to own their failure, many of us will over-apologize. Failure is a part of business and chances are, your boss has failed too. There will be times when you need to say you’re sorry, but in a lot of cases, you’re better off saying thank you.

Here’s what I mean: running a few minutes late, instead of walking in saying, “oh, I’m so sorry”, say “thank you for your patience.” In micro-failures, people respond to “thank you” better than they do, “I’m sorry”.

If it’s a slightly bigger mistake, like a wrong order, say something like thank you for giving us the chance to make this right. This takes ownership, but it doesn’t go into negativity or wallowing. It lets the other person know you appreciate their support.

Fail fast
Personally, I think the long-touted advice of “never give up” should have an asterisk on it. No one wants to spend decades of their mental energy pursuing something ultimately fruitless in the name of “never giving up.”

Leaders give up all the time; it’s impossible to be efficient with your time if you unwaveringly commit to everything you start. The nuance is to recognize when to give up.

Unfortunately, ambitious people often let sunk costs get the best of them in these scenarios. When you’ve already invested your time and energy, it’s difficult to accept that it’s not working. Yet, in most instances, investing more won’t change the inevitable.

With an eye to the future possibility (not the historic investment) be realistic with yourself about how likely success is to appear in the final hour. How are you going to change what you’ve been doing? Because if you don’t change, the result likely won’t either. Great leaders fail, but they do it fast, and then they move on.

If you’re not failing at least some of the time, you’re probably not trying very hard. Success is never linear; failure is part of the process. The more you can own it, face it, and move forward quickly, the more likely your ‘failure’ will be a chapter in your story, not the ending.