How to Fail Well

This is a guest post by Nathan Rouse. He is the lead pastor at Raleigh Christian Community. He and his wife, Erin, have two boys, Ethan and Landon. You can read his blog and follow him on Twitter.If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

Recently, I made an early morning phone call to one of my direct reports to own a blunder on my part. Not a great way to start the day. If you’ve ever blown it as a leader you know that these conversations are never fun. It’s humbling.

An Extreme Mountain Bike Crashing - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/MichaelSvoboda, Image #14826906

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/MichaelSvoboda

Great leaders hold those they lead accountable. But those we lead must see us as holding ourselves accountable as well. If we expect them to “own it” when they make mistakes, we need to first model this for them.

Here are five principles for owning your own mistakes and failures:

  1. Respond immediately. When you realize you’ve made a mistake, “own it” with those involved as soon as possible. Delaying only tempts you to put it off and rationalize why it’s not that big of a deal to share. If your teammates don’t see you owning your mistakes when they come to light, they will question your credibility—and rightly so.
  2. Be crystal clear. Be direct and clear about the mistakes you make. If avoiding accountability is bad, half-owning a mistake wrapped in excuses is pathetic. Don’t beat around the bush or sugar coat the issue. Clearly identify the mistake and its implications. This will help bring people up to speed on the issue and enlist their support in what should be done next.
  3. Share the lesson learned. Failure is a wasted experience if nothing is learned. Learning a personal lesson is good, but teaching others from your mistakes is even better. It will take some humility on your part, but great leaders know that it’s much more effective to lead out of vulnerability with all of our imperfections than seeking to manage a façade of leadership perfection.
  4. Be ready for feedback. Just because you’ve taken responsibility doesn’t mean that people will not want to further process what has transpired. Be prepared for people to share their feedback. Resist the urge to be defensive. A wonderful proverb states that “a soft answer turns away wrath.” It is difficult for people to pour out their wrath on someone that takes feedback with humility. Remember: if you’re committed to “owning it,” this is part of the process.
  5. Move forward. If you lead, you’re going to fail, period. It’s part of the job description. Pick yourself up and move on. Earlier in my leadership I would be paralyzed by my mistakes. It would take me forty-eight hours or so to find my leadership equilibrium. High capacity leaders don’t have that kind of time to be wasting by kicking themselves. Keep in mind you’re modeling that you can fail, learn, and move forward.

The sad reality is that many leaders run from owning their mistakes because they don’t want to look weak. The irony is that this very avoidance of accountability screams weakness. Strength in leadership comes from integrated character at every level. Make owning mistakes part of your leadership toolbox and you and your team will be the better for it.

What “owning it” principles have you found to be helpful? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://paulcoughlin.com Paul Coughlin

    Great post Nathan, thanks.

    Your question prompts me to also add ‘reflection’ as an ownership principle.

    By reflection, I mean conscious internal reflection. It’s only within that quiet reflection space that we can connect with our own meaningful insights – that self-coaching space. Ideally, journal the thoughts and insights – this also ‘pulls’ them through the sense-making process.

    There’s a very effective template I came across a while ago that helps with this ‘reflective journal’ process.

    http://www.businessballs.com/freepdfmaterials/reflective_diary_journal_templates.pdf 

    Thanks again,
    Paul.

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Great comment Paul. I agree that reflection must be a part of a leader’s mental and emotional diet. I’m convinced that most leaders don’t make enough margin in their lives for it.

      Thanks for reading,

      Nathan

    • http://www.bigb94.wordpress.com Brandon

      Reflection- nice!

    • Shannon Topham

      Thank you for the excellent template and website. I’m doing a project on reflective practices, and the template is exactly what I needed!

      • http://paulcoughlin.com Paul Coughlin

        You’re most welcome Shannon :-)

        It’s an interest of mine also – would love to hear more about your project at some point – if you find the time. paul (at) paulcoughlin (dot) com.

        Best of luck with the project,
        Paul

  • http://joeandancy.com/ Joe Abraham

    Taking responsibility is one major thing I found to be helpful for a true leader. It’s easy to blame others when things go wrong. But it takes boldness and integrity to take the responsibility on one’s own shoulders. However, I also believe leaders should not have a false sense of responsibility. 

    Thanks for the helpful post, Nathan.

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Thanks for reading Joe.

  • http://www.sundijo.com Sundi Jo Graham

    Loved this comment, “If avoiding accountability is bad, half-owning a mistake wrapped in excuses is pathetic.” So true.. 

    Pride is one of my struggles, so when I know I have to face an issue that I must take responsibility for, when the other person is talking to me, I’m consciously repeating in my mind Proverbs 11:2, When pride comes then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. 

    It keeps my mind and mouth right where it should be, quiet, listening, and without defense. 

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Great to hear your feedback Sundi. Your right, if anything is going to keep a leader from from “owning it” it will be pride. When I find myself getting defensive on an issue I immediately recognize there is a pride issue I need to address.

      Thanks for reading.

      Nathan

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  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    Insightful post, Nathan. Failure can be our greatest teacher, but it also can also tear us down. It really comes down to how we respond. The older I get, the more I realize how failure, properly handled, can really be an opportunity in disguise.

    Three questions come to mind…

    1. What can we learn from this?

    2. How could we have done things differently?

    3. Where do we go from here?

    As a leader, asking questions and opening lines of communication are critical.

    As John Maxwell says, “The major difference between achieving people and average people is their perception of and response to failure.”  

    With the five points you made above, we can be certain that handling failure well, can help us move forward and achieve great things.

    • http://bentheredothat.com Ben Patterson

      Great follow up questions to ask! We often breeze through the accountability aspect of our actions.

      • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

        Asking questions often helps us see hidden opportunities, not only for ourselves, but others too. This allows us to offer solutions to problems that others may be suffering with. 

        In Toastmasters, for example, I’ve shared many of my past failures in speeches and almost invariably someone will come up afterwards and let me know they have suffered from the same problem.

        The best way to make money in almost any economy is to find a problem and offer a solution.

        • http://bentheredothat.com Ben Patterson

          Yep. Solutions and doing what nobody else us doing are solid ways to make money.

      • http://www.bigb94.wordpress.com Brandon

        so true

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Great questions, John. One other one that I like, “What does this make possible?

      • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

        So true, Michael. Questions like that allow us to see the larger picture. It would be interesting to come up with a failure checklist (I see a post coming out of this) that has questions like this and provides a worksheet for answers. I think that could save a lot of time and frustration.

        • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

          Great post idea, John!

    • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

      As usual, John, you offer some perceptive additional thoughts. The Maxwell quote is both appropriate and helpful. Thanks–Tom

  • http://www.frymonkeys.com Alan Kay

    Thanks Nathan, a great post. Your five points are all critical. I especially appreciate #3 – share the learning.  

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      I appreciate you taking the time to read this Alan!

  • http://EverythingPrayer.com/ Jim Otis

    Own it, suck it up and move on. While the opposite screams weakness, as you so aptly put it, taking immediate ownership screams authenticity, approachability, and acceptance.  Gotta say I’m tired of high-profile leaders who talk this talk but fail in the walk.  A leader who takes this to heart will lance the boil of subordinates stuffing their own failures under the table for fear of it being counted against them.

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Jim I couldn’t agree more! When leaders lead out of vulnerability we release others to be vulnerable.

      Thanks, 

      Nathan

    • http://bentheredothat.com Ben Patterson

      Preach it, Jim!

    • http://www.bigb94.wordpress.com Brandon

      That is right!

  • Haelie

    Quite providential that I read this just now. We had an awkward family Christmas with unexpected emotional conflict and strain between several adults (myself and mother-in-law included). Many factors potentially played into what turned out to be a sour ending to Christmas.

    I have been uneasy with the unresolved situation, but have yet been unable to attempt to make contact and own my part due to a busy week this week.

    Today, I do plan to take a minute of downtime at work to send an “own it” email of apology and reconciliation. This post today was very helpful in preparing me for that and confirming the need to do it. Thank you!

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Haelie,

      I’m sincerely glad this was helpful today. I know from experience how difficult it can be to “own it” with family. Our fear is that in our owning it, it will be thrown back in our face. For me it feels like being out on a limb in the wind on your own. Regardless, I’ve found great comfort in knowing I’m doing the right thing for the right reason and I grow from it.

      Thanks for reading,

      Nathan

  • Deborah Rabern

    Amazing feedback from my co-workers. They rallied to my side, and let me know they appreciated not being blamed. I dropped it, admitted it, apologized, and asked them to help me in the future if they saw something going off track. It was embarrassing, but turned into a win-win.

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      That’s awesome Deborah! Way to model this!

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Nice, Deborah. Love that you immediately put this into practice!

  • http://www.kellycombs.com/ Kelly Combs

    Great post, Nathan.  I find #5 is the hardest for me. I beat myself up even after others have forgotten the mistake.  I am learning that I don’t have to be perfect…and as a matter of fact it is an impossibility.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Thanks Kelly. As I shared in the post, in the past it was very difficult for me to be able to move on after blowing it. There were times I actually exalted my mistake to a moral level when it wasn’t that extreme. We are taught how to succeed by many, but there’s some growing to do in this area of bouncing back from failure.

      Thanks again for reading.

      Nathan

    • http://www.bigb94.wordpress.com Brandon

      It is true. We ourselves can be our worst enemies!

  • http://henryfiallo.wordpress.com Enrique Fiallo

    Great post. No one is infallible, including leaders. Holding oneself accountable by stepping up and admitting a mistake is not only the right way to be, it shows courage, and vulnerability, a trait that is so important in creating an environment where people can openly discuss and debate issues and problems, on the way towards finding solutions. It demonstrates to others that humility is important in being a leader, and that leaders with integrity, own their blunders! Thanks very much for sharing this blog and these steps.

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Thanks for reading!

    • http://bentheredothat.com Ben Patterson

      Humility in leadership. Right on, Enrique!

  • http://bentheredothat.com Ben Patterson

    Great points. Leaders must commit to having tough conversations, especially when they’re out of bounds.

  • http://darensirbough.com/ Daren Sirbough

    At the beginning of 2011, I felt God urge me to apologise to a handful of people for my past behaviour. As a leader, all within me said no. As a God fearing Christian, I knew what I needed to do. I obeyed God and apologised. Some were taken well, some weren’t. The truth is that there is a deeper richness to most if not all of those relationships from the time that I apologised.

    Own your failings, hold yourself accountable and people will respect you when you hold them accountable.

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Daren, that’s huge that you were willing to be obedient and step out like that. Great job!

    • http://www.bigb94.wordpress.com Brandon

      Great story and example!

  • http://www.struggletovictory.com/ Kari Scare

    I tell my boys (11 and 13) that when they make a mistake, they need to “admit it, ask for forgivness, learn from it, and move on.” I find that I have to tell myself that a lot too. I’m a perfectionist, so making a mistake is doubly painful. I’m working on allowing myself to make mistakes though. I need to take my own advice for sure.

  • Carrie

    One of the things I have is that admitting that I am fallible makes me trustworthy. I grew up in a world that failure was met with “making an example of the person” or “this is why they weren’t cut out for this leadership position”. For the longest time, I struggled with perfectionism (and admittedly still do). Slowly, it has become clear that others know I’m fallible so trying to hide it only makes things worse and demonstrates I can not be trusted.

    The reality is – as you said – we all make mistakes. It’s how we handle them that shows the kind of person we are. . . a person of integrity & character. (For almost 15 years, I was an assistant to three high-level executives. One would frequently use me as a scapegoat for his mistakes (explaining that I had to take the blame to protect him) , one would make excuses for his mistakes, and one would recognize his mistakes, address them, and move on – showing he had learned from it. I highly respected the last one and honestly would have done anything for him, because I knew he was a man of integrity and I could trust him to act honorably. He is the one I most want to be like and strive to behave in the same manner.

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Carrie, thanks for engaging! Your comment illustrates a valuable point. Teams are watching their leaders in how they handle their mistakes. Here you are after 15 yrs of working with executives and are making a point in how they handled their issues. I wonder if they would recognize themselves after reading your comment. 

      Thanks for reading,

      Nathan

  • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

    That’s how true leaders say goodbye: Failwell! 

    • http://www.bigb94.wordpress.com Brandon

      Right!

  • Anonymous

    I would add one word to each of the 5 steps – humility.

    • http://www.bigb94.wordpress.com Brandon

      That’s a great point…this is something that is needed in every leader’s life.

  • http://www.noahlomax.com Noah Lomax

    Awesome reminder. My dad told me one of the first things I needed to know if I wanted to be in leadership is the importance of owning my own mistakes. If I was not willing to own my own, not only did I not deserve to lead, but also I would not be understanding when people under me failed.

    • http://www.bigb94.wordpress.com Brandon

      Right!

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Noah, I absolutely agree. We show mercy to those we lead when we recognize we’ve been in need of mercy!

      Thanks for reading.

      Nathan

  • http://www.bigb94.wordpress.com Brandon

    Move forward. If you lead, you’re going to fail, period. It’s part of the job description. Pick yourself up and move on.

    That is so important. If you can’t get over the past, you haven’t learned from it…

  • http://www.kilroywashereusa.wordpress.com/ Effie-Alean Gross

    You are so right, Michael. Humans fail…plain and simple. To make us even more human, we can admit failure and like you wrote, move on. I hate making mistakes, but sometimes I learn a lesson best from my blunder.

  • http://www.kilroywashereusa.wordpress.com/ Effie-Alean Gross

    Opps! My comment was intended for Michael Hyatt’s guest writer, Nathan! See, here in print is a mistake about mistakes. Did I mention laughter? Well, to me, this is funny!

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Effie, thanks for reading! Appreciate your humor and the encouragement to move on!

  • http://www.SpencerMcDonald.net Spencer McDonald

    This is a key reminder for me. I once failed dramatically at work. I allowed arrogance to cloud my judgement.

    In an email I made fun of another team member. Bad karma does sometimes happen. Happens in this circumstance that I included that team member on the email string. I was summarily reprimand by him and rightfully so. 

    The outcome was tarnished credibility to him and to the team. I did own my mistake and apologized immediately for my error in judgement. For that I felt good. For the arrogance in my eye I felt really bad. Every day now I remember to check my arrogance so that cooperation and genuine leadership prevail. 

    Thanks for an excellent post and great reminder to keep failing forward. 

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Thanks for the encouragement and thanks for sharing your story Spencer.  I love being able to learn from others.

      Nathan

  • http://jeffwaskowiak.wordpress.com/ Jeff Waskowiak

    In the book “Good to Great,” it is said that when something goes wrong, bad leaders look out the window and ask what others did to cause such a calamity, and look in the mirror at themselves when things are going well.  But GREAT leaders do the opposite.  When something goes wrong, they look in the mirror to ask what they themselves did wrong to cause such a problem, and they look out the window at their faithful workers when things go right.

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Jeff, that was such an insight principle from Good to Great. Thanks for reminding me and thanks for reading!

      Nathan

      • http://jeffwaskowiak.wordpress.com/ Jeff Waskowiak

        Absolutely!  Thanks for the response

    • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

      Chris Patton on his blog talks about John Wooden and the lessons he taught his players. When a player scored a basket, Wooden said to acknowledge the teammate who made the pass. Jeff, your advice from Jim Collins reminded me of Chris’ recent post. http://christianfaithatwork.com/advice-from-coach-john-wooden/

      • http://jeffwaskowiak.wordpress.com/ Jeff Waskowiak

        TNeal, those are true words.  And they hit home with me since I was a big basketball player most of my life !

  • http://theordainedbarista.com Barry Hill

    Nathan,
    Love this! In my humble opinion I think that #3. and #4. are the hardest to do, and out of those two #4. is the hardest. It’s one thing to admit a mistake, but then to sit there and let people share feelings, advice etc… very difficult! Very rewarding, but very difficult! Good post, buddy!

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Barry, thinks for commenting. It’s interesting I’ve had several people share which step seemed the most difficult for them. It just goes back to our unique personalities and the filter we’re looking through. Thanks for reading.

      Nathan

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  • John Doherty

    Michael – 

    Great post here, and I totally agree. Failing is one of the hardest things for me to do, and it’s hard to do as a leader because we feel like we are letting others down. And in a way we are, but we’re also admitting that we are human. I’d personally rather have a leader who screwed up, and admitted it, than one who seems to always have it together. After all, we’re all just learning as we go. Some of us just have more of a headstart on failing than others.

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Thanks for reading Michael!

  • http://sorebuttcheeks.blogspot.com/ steroids

    practice makes perfect :-)

  • Connie Almony

    People who lead like that gain MY respect!

  • TNeal

    Nathan, appreciate your insights. I dialogued with each of your points as I read them; they were so practical and touched on familiar territory. Just yesterday I blundered at home. The toughest part was sifting through my wife’s legitimate anger, fighting the temptation to rationalize, and admitting the wrong. I limped through taking ownership but, lame or not, I owned up to what I did. The result was forgiveness, one that came sooner than later because of taking the posture suggested by points one and two. Again, good, practical stuff.–Tom

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Tom, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been in the situation you described…. :). Humility is really the key to growing personally and in our relationships.

      Thanks,

      Nathan

  • http://ketywriter3c60.prosite.com/ Ket

    Thank you. These words are going to be on my wall for the next year. Here is something from me/ http://bit.ly/s0esps/

  • Karen Zeigler

    When I consider the individuals that would NOT own their mistakes they generally fall into two camps – cowards or prideful individuals.  Neither of which make effective leaders in the long run.  In my leadership experience I think what I have gained most from my “owning” my mistakes over the years is respect.  People respect people that are real, approachable and admit there mistakes and move on. It’s a great role model for staff, peers, and children as well.  Thanks for a great post! Look forward to another soon.

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Karen, thanks for sharing. I probably in my life had landed at one time or another in both of those camps. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to grow as a leader in being able to walk this challenging truth out.

      Thanks for reading.

      Nathan

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      I agree Karen. It’s a tremendous role model for staff, peers, and CHILDREN! Imagine the potential influence this could have when those children grow up!

  • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

    This is a great post, Nathan. Succinct and “easy” to apply … okay, not necessarily EASY. I read a John Wooden quote today that is right in line with this:

    “Four things you do with a mistake: Recognize it, Admit it, Learn from it, Forget it.”

    I typed it up on an 8×11 in big bold letters and printed it off for our family. If there’s one thing I am compelled to do better in parenting, it’s to teach my boys how to own their mistakes. And then move on. Me, too. :)

    • http://NathanRouse.org/ Nathan Rouse

      Michele,

      Thanks for sharing this. I love that you’re applying this across the board in your life. I’ll see about using this with my sons. I love learning from other people.

      Thanks for reading!

      Nathan

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  • http://www.irunurun.com/blog/ Travis Dommert

    Enjoyed the post and the proverb.  Insecurity becomes so painfully apparent when you see someone fail to bring themselves to say “sorry, I screwed up”…or even just “perhaps it was my mistake”.  

    Any politicians listening?

  • Shane Browning

    One of the greatest things my father ever said to was, “I’m sorry son; I was wrong”. Owning up to our mistakes as leaders begins at home. Along with weakness, the air of perfectionism also screams insecurity and hypocrisy. The next generation sees it and they disconnect. If we want to achieve better results as leaders, let go of the perfectionist mentality and engage our children in honest and open dialogue. That is the first step in tearing down walls and building bridges.

  • Frank Chimento

    No failure – Only feedback, outcomes and results. I love that line of thinking and approach in business because when you do not arrive at your expected outcome… something along the way has… well, failed. Great reminder to “own” your behavior (or lack thereof) and inspire others to join you on the shared journey.

  • Joanne

    I am absolutely willing to take on responsibility for my actions. I have, however, come to learn that the word ‘failure’ infers to me that the experience is/was inherently bad. Starting to think it is time to reconsider that word in our vocabulary and change it to ‘lessons’. In this word there is no less ownership but a lot less blame–whether blaming yourself or others. An individual or group can take more positive learning from one’s lessons and continue on to challenge and improve yourself.

    To quote from my recent journal entry:
    May have just realized that these things are not failures or bad; they are all just life lessons in the big picture of what’s meant to be in my life.

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    Nathan! Great Ideas. Thanks for tips.
    I feel that the acceptance of failure in the key to “owning it” principle. It behaves as the trigger point. Without acceptance, nothing moves forward. I have seen many leaders struggling with this. Their status, ego, and position often makes them averse to accepting the failure in their life.
    I find the book “Failing forward” by John C Maxwell a great resource on thiss topic. 

  • Anonymous

    Humility is a key trait/charactheristic for leaders to possess. It’s not enough for leaders to teach others how to succeed, they must also be willing to face their short-comings, and in doing so, teach others how to react when things go wrong. Thanks for that reminder Nathan.

    • http://theordainedbarista.com Barry Hill

      Carson,
      You are right on here! My current boss is such a humble guy and his willingness to show us his faults and mistakes…as well as transparency with the occasional criticisms he receives has been worth the whole ride!

      • Anonymous

        Barry,
        He’s setting a good example for you guys to follow in the event you find yourselves in leadership.

  • http://twitter.com/robmccleland Rob McCleland

    Such an important lesson! Two quick thoughts:
    1) Using specific words is VERY helpful. Our team has adopted: “I was wrong when I _____________ .”
    2) If your failure affected/hurt someone else, after the apology, follow up with, “What can I do to make it right?” Then shut up and listen. 

  • Drew Bordas

    I really enjoyed this post.  I have found I am much more likely to truly follow a leader when they can display the ability to admit mistakes and learn from them.

  • http://targetsuccesstoday.blogspot.com Vivian Ow

    Great post Nathan,
    As I read this, I am reminded also of the situations where leaders are afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ – perhaps for fear of being considered incompetent for the role. This is especially true in technical leadership roles where the leader was put place for his or her advanced technical skills. Yet owning up in such a situation can allow the leader to lead better and utilise the skills and collaborative power of the team, resulting in better team engagement. 

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  • http://businessrebirth.blogspot.com Shallie Bey

    My personal aspiration is to help inspire people who aspire to become baby boomer entrepreneurs. This is a rapidly developing new trend, like most things that have happened to us baby boomers all of our lives.

    I must apply the concepts of this article in realizing that I will not be perfect in helping people; we are covering new territory. I therefore must model the principles shared here. I must also try to encourage people to apply these principles to themselves so that they can encourage those who join their team to do likewise.

  • http://suzanneheyn.wordpress.com/ Suzanne

    Great post, especially the step about moving forward. Failure is inevitable in a fully lived life. Own it and move on! 

  • Experience

    Owning mistakes isn’t really about looking weak. It’s about looking stupid & incompetant. And you will look stupid if you make mistakes. One “oops” wipes out a whole bunch of “atta boys”. Don’t screw up, or you won’t reach the top.