Right before the start of the America's Cup World Series regatta in Oman in February, Sir Ben Ainslie had a tough decision.
Ainslie – the most successful Olympic sailor in history, with five medals – is captain of the Land Rover BAR sailing team and has a penchant for come-from-behind victories.
On the final day of racing in Oman in February, the winds were light. In the first two of three heats, Ainslie misjudged the winds and steered his yacht over the start line too quickly – a fault of a mere 12cm the first time and 10cm the second. The penalty meant he had to let the other boats pass him.
Ben Ainslie's Land Rover BAR team in action off the coast of Oman (Credit: Getty Images)
But the third heat changed everything. With the wind still barely blowing, Ainslie fought from third place to first, and the victory was enough for his team to clinch the entire event.
Looking back now, Ainslie said there’s a big reason his team managed the win. As captain, Ainslie was quick to take responsibility for the first two faults, and that meant his team could move on to the third heat without blame hanging over them.
It’s not the mistakes that define you, it’s what you do with them
“I could have had a group of guys looking at me in frustration. But we have guys who understand it’s OK to make mistakes,” said Ainslie. “My guys know, if you push and fail, it doesn’t have to be the end.”
That’s not an easy task for most leaders. Admitting you’re the reason something went wrong, owning up to the fact that your department or company failed is tough. But sucking it up, coming forward and learning from the experience is the hallmark of a great manager.
It’s human nature for people to want to take credit for what went right and shift blame for what went wrong, said Oliver Donoghue, managing director and co-founder of the Nonstop Recruitment Schweiz AG talent agency in Prague. In many companies, that creates a culture where nobody wants to take responsibility for fear of being punished.
“What you need to learn is that it’s not the mistakes that define you,” Donoghue said, “it’s what you do with them.”
Owning his mistakes let champion skipper Ben Ainslie move on and win races (Credit: Lloyd Images)
Nearly every type of team has the same problem with taking responsibility when things go awry, said Jan Hagen, associate professor at ESMT business school in Berlin. Hagen has studied the reactions of different people – from office workers to flight crews – that are faced with stress. In cockpits, he found that crew members often won’t report problems to the captain out of an innate anxiety associated with delivering bad news.
It’s never easy to admit to a problem, even in a great organisation
In the business world, middle managers often keep their heads down when things go wrong, fearing that reporting a problem means they’ll take the blame, Hagen said. “It’s never easy to admit to a problem, even in a great organisation,” he said.
The problem with this system of denial is that you lose out on the chance to learn from the mistake, Hagen said. Instead, after admitting to a failure, analyse what went wrong, which will help you figure out how to avoid it next time.
“When things go right, we talk about it and we learn from it,” Hagen said. “When there’s a fear of failure in an organisation, people lose out on the chance to learn how a problem happened and how to avoid it happening again.”
It's crucial for managers to learn the right way to take responsibility for a setback, said David Rodnitzky, CEO of 3Q Digital, a media company in California. While admitting to the problem, offer up analysis on how it happened, what you’ve learned from it, and how you’ll avoid it from now on.
There’s an old adage every manager should live by: accept responsibility and delegate credit
That kind of analysis will help you survive the fallout from your superiors or stockholders. As well, admitting to the mistake will help you with your subordinates, Rodnitzky said. Blaming yourself for the mistake, instead of someone on your staff, breeds loyalty.
Good managers will also learn that taking responsibility doesn’t always include the successes, Rodnitzky said. When things go well, it’s time to give credit to someone else. “There’s an old adage every manager should live by: accept responsibility and delegate credit,” Rodnitzky said.
Rejecting your ego
Cristina Mariani-May recently experienced firsthand how difficult it was to admit she was wrong.
Her family owns New York-based Banfi Wines, which has exported Italian wine worldwide since 1919. Since 1978, it has also owned a Tuscan vineyard.
Admitting she was wrong let Cristina Mariani-May – and her company – move on from a contentious decision (Credit: Banfi Vinters)
It was her father, John Mariani, who came up with the idea seven years ago of opening a hotel on their seven-acre Italian property. During a meeting in the Montalcino office they share, he suggested the company could run the hotel themselves. Mariani-May argued they needed to bring in an expert. Things got heated, and it seemed like there was no compromise.
Mariani-May agreed to study the two options. Two years later, after checking with other winery owners, she came back to her father with a difficult answer: He was right.
“I had to swallow my pride, and I had to admit I was wrong,” Mariani-May recalled. “It wasn’t easy, but once I took credit for making the wrong decision, we could move on.”
The award-winning Castello Banfi il Borgo wouldn’t have been possible if Mariani-May hadn’t admitted she made a mistake (Credit: Castello Banfi il Borgo)
Five years ago the company opened Castello Banfi il Borgo, a privately run 14-room hotel on the grounds of a 12th Century castle. Since then, Condé Nast Traveler ranked it among the best hotels in Italy, and Fodor's Travel named it one of the 10 best wine country hotels in the world. It wouldn’t have been possible, Mariani-May said, if she first hadn’t admitted she made a mistake.
“That’s one of the assets of good management. Don’t go into any big project with ego, and be ready to admit when you’ve made a mistake.”