How leaders can bring people together after a mistake

(Image credit: Varvara Grabova/Unsplash)

Leaders – everyone – will have to eat crow at some point. They will have to recognize a bad decision and its consequences.

How to do it is essential, so I recommend watching one of the very last scenes of the Danish political drama, “Borgen: power and glory.” In this scene, Birgitte Nyborg, the central character of this long multi-part drama, recognizes her missteps. (For fans of the show, I’ll avoid spoilers and focus on behaviors universal to leadership communications.)

Baldoni on leaders

By way of background, Birgitte (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) is now Foreign Secretary (after serving as Prime Minister) and may be looking for a way to return to the top job. The series focuses on oil drilling in Greenland, a Danish protectorate that resents its colonization to say the least. At a party conference, Birgitte has to address her party, the one she helped form. And under the parliamentary system, he is a senior member of the ruling coalition.

Be honest

When Birgitte goes on stage, there is an air of skepticism. She struggles with trust issues; in a way, it is in competition with the image of itself. “Pride,” wrote Catholic monk Thomas Merton, “makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.” Of course, you have to be proud of your leadership ability, but when that pride overshadows mistakes, it’s time to take stock. And in her speech, Birgitte does exactly that.

Recognize the roots

Top leaders like Birgitte are part of the culture, rooted in the vision and mission. They must communicate to the public their common past and, more importantly, their common values. Leaders also need to remind the public what they all believe in – their vision and mission – and why it matters.

Admit mistakes

Sometimes crises happen because leaders fail. Either they go into businesses based on false assumptions, or they fail to keep up with trends and then get caught up in something unexpected. Sometimes leaders place people in leadership positions that are beyond their abilities. If that fails, leaders need to step forward and admit the mistake.

Make amends

Leaders need to discuss specific actions they will take to rectify the situation. They need to take ownership of the problem and call on others to help them find the right solutions.

Shine the light on others

Leaders accomplish little on their own. Their role is to guide the forces to accomplish the mission. Leaders should cite team accomplishments and tell hero stories of how people have achieved results through thick and thin.

Call to action

A speech that calls for unity must ask something of its audience. The request may be to continue what they are doing, but often it means going further. Not working harder, but working differently. Leaders must call on people to work together for a common cause and to collaboratively share ideas and actions.

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As we see with Birgitte in “Borgen” – as with real-life rulers – crisis reveals character. Those leaders who face adversity head-on are those who are worthy of our supporters. To gain trust, it is essential to admit mistakes and make amends. Leaders who do this dispel the air of invincibility in favor of the cloak of vulnerability. Humility is essential.

Bram Stoker, the creator of Draculasaid, “We learn from failure, not from success!” This aphorism applies not only to the fictional characters, but also to the living and breathing leaders responsible for the future of the organization and its members.

John Baldoni, a member of 100 Coaches and a key leadership speaker, has been recognized as one of the Top 20 Leadership Experts by Global Gurus and is listed among the Top 100 Global Leaders and Top 50 Leadership Experts by Inc. Author of 15 books, Baldoni has a leadership resource website.


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