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The positive effect of admitting to failure

According to a recent Harvard Business School research, leaders who admit failures on their path to success can win over their colleagues and make them more authentic and approachable. Learning about leadership mistakes also helps other team members to be motivated to improve their own performance.

People are often reluctant to admit to their mistakes, both when they are happening and in retrospect. Confessing to our mistakes and setbacks is counterintuitive – we often chose to talk about our achievements and hide failures. However, leaders who only talk about their success can come across as arrogant and showing off. According to the research, revealing successes as well failures can limit malicious envy from others, an emotion that often occurs when people compare themselves to their more successful peers. When people feel envious, they are counterproductive and undermine others, which limits the team’s potential for success. Envy can also interfere with group cohesion and make people feel more justified in behaving unethically, according to prior research.

Fear of failure

If you are not prepared to fail, we are not prepared to learn. The world is changing at a rapid speed and unless organisations and leaders are not learning, they will never evolve and keep growing. Even Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world, confirms that his company’s growth and innovation is built on its failures. James Quincey, CEO of Coca Cola has called upon his managers right after becoming CEO to get beyond the fear of failure. His message was: “If we are not making mistakes, we are not trying hard enough.”

Patrick Doyle, CEO of Domino’s Pizza also insists that creating a permission to fail is a necessary condition for success and the reason behind having one of the most successful career stories. Making mistakes is part of a leadership journey, yet so many leaders and businesses fear failure and disappointments, which then leads to limited creativity and innovation.

The authentic leadership

Authentic leaders create positive team environment where mistakes are seen as part of the learning journey. Leaders need to set the right example and they need to walk the talk. Not words, but leadership actions tell a story and following through on promises is what creates trust. Employees remember the outcomes, not the words and they need to be confident that their leaders support the organisations’ mission and vision and care about how these directly affect them on individual levels. A mismatch between beliefs and action can result in declining team morale, motivation and productivity. Leaders who find ways to link individual aspirations with organisational goals are the ones who can maximise their team’s talent and skills and make them feel recognised and rewarded for their individual contributions.

In today’s uncertain, volatile and complex business environment the need to equip leaders at all levels with leadership skills and organisational capabilities has never been more important. Businesses of all sizes are increasingly recognising that leadership development should not only be restricted to the C-suite, but available to employees across the board. At Acumen, we offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from presentation skills through to customer service events and executive leadership development to prepare your future leaders for their next transition. For more information, contact

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