CEO Apologies: Do Business Leaders Take ‘Learn From Your Mistakes’ Too Far?

Once again, several global CEOs — from AT&T to Starbucks to AirAsia — have gone on an apology tour.

The Washington Post reports that AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said his company “made a ‘serious misjudgment’ to seek advice from President Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen and announced that its top lobbying executive in Washington would be leaving the firm.”

In an email to employees, Stephenson wrote: “Our company has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons these last few days and our reputation has been damaged. There is no other way to say it — AT&T hiring Michael Cohen as a political consultant was a big mistake.”

Following the arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks, the Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson issued a number of apologies — and is closing stores for all-hands training on May 29.

In Malaysia, the Wall Street Journal reports that “AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes Apologizes for Malaysia Election Video,” adding: “The country’s best-known businessman published a video apologizing for supporting former Prime Minister Najib Razak ahead of last week’s election loss, prefiguring what could be a period of corporate realignment in a country where political connections often determine whether businesses succeed or fail.”

Have business leaders taken the mantra to “learn from your mistakes” too far?

While there are positives to be gleaned from one’s mistakes, the business world seems to have taken it too far. Instead, leaders should focus more on both the tangible skills and soft skills needed to optimize efficiencies and productivity companywide.

“To be sure, today’s business leaders can and should learn from past mistakes,” explains Bob Ryan, principal at Shields Meneley Partners, a career-transition and leadership-coaching firm for the C-Suite. “However, these influencers need to concentrate on the core traits that make them impactful leaders, such as his or her decision-making abilities, focus and ability to inspire others.”

Somehow, today’s business leaders, particularly in the entrepreneurial cohort, have transformed failure into a rite of passage. Whereas failure used to be something that was feared and strongly avoided, it has now become something that in many ways is sought out in leadership ranks.

“As a culture, we accept the stunning ubiquity of failure because we can see the upside,” writes David Whitford. “But lately, we’ve made a bizarre leap from tolerating failure, which is reasonable, to fetishizing failure, which is absurd.”

The attempt to reframe the negative ramifications of failure into some kind of positive motivational force could have significant deleterious long-term consequences for today’s leadership because this pursuit ignores the emotional scars that often result from failure. There are real personal and emotional costs associated with failure that most people endure, yet seem to be glossed over in media in favor of dramatizing it as an exercise in building up a person’s motivation, strength and persistence.

“When you set a performance goal, your efforts are directed toward demonstrating your ability, and failures and setbacks prove the very opposite of your intention,” writes Psychology Today. “Research shows that most people, contrary to the myths about setbacks, are deterred by them in the context of a performance goal, and begin to feel helpless and hopeless in their wake.”

Rather than celebrating, and in some cases seeking out, failure, leaders today should focus on their jobs at hand and executing on the traits that will make them better performers and result in more positive outcomes for their companies.

Learn from mistakes. For Shields Meneley Partners’ Ryan, this is a key driver for leaders who have endured hardships at work. Rather than propping up these instances where leaders have failed to meet challenge as badges of honor, leaders should take the experiences as opportunities to not make the same error twice.

“Mistakes will be made and they need to be managed swiftly,” Ryan says. “Effective leaders have enough self-awareness to see his or her mistakes and to take the steps necessary to ensure the same thing will not happen again.”

EQ. For all of the tough talk about today’s workforce being too sensitive, the reality is that most truly successful business leaders today exercise a strong sense of emotional intelligence about his or her employees. There is a reason human-centered design is thriving in today’s business world. Employees want to connect with their bosses on an emotional level and quickly attain a strong sense of understanding one another. Business leaders today should tap into the emotional toll the failure took on herself or himself to understand employees have feelings too.

Coach and trainer. Part of being a good leader today includes coaching and mentoring tomorrow’s leaders. This is an important part of the job description that all too often is lost on management, and a perfect opportunity to use the key learnings the mistakes you made to help others manage through challenges.

“When you were made a leader, you weren’t given a crown; you were given the responsibility to bring out the best in others,” said Jack Welch, CD&R Senior Advisor and former chief executive officer from General Electric.

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