Leadership Insight | First rule of a mistake: Admit it

“A lie will easily get you out of a scrape, and yet,

strangely and beautifully, rapture possesses you

when you have taken the scrape and left out the lie.”

~ Charles Edward Montague


Everyone makes mistakes. 

We know this for a fact, don’t we? It’s pretty clear —like crystal.

Why are we are so unwilling to admit our mistakes?

So, why do so many persist in their insistence that they did no wrong?

Despite the lessons that cover the waterfront — from Watergate to the Catholic Church — the cover-up is always worse than the crime.

What appeared to be minor tributaries turned into a rushing river of a failed presidency and international scandal, yet the stream of lies and denial from those who fail to heed these lessons continues unabated in both our public and private lives.

The truth will never come out … will it?

For some reason, we persist in believing that the truth will never come out.

Lies are hastily built, one upon another, to create a scaffold of distortion and deception, with the ultimate truth serving as only a casual bystander to a litany of half-truths, convenient memories and studied omissions.

This process unfolds in the workplace as well.

Harassment allegations and wrongful termination claims are often governed by this “lie and deny” mentality. In many instances, these matters are further confounded when flawed memories, mixed messages and preconceived notions collide to create a muddled story from which the real truth is rarely extracted.

Are we celebrating our values – or only using them when it’s convenient?

You may recall that we’ve touched upon the importance of values during our discussion of “conduct unbecoming” about the misadventures and ethical lapses of executives, or when we discussed the West Point honor code and the ethical obligations we’re expected to “tolerate” from those who break the rules.

So, if we all celebrate the transcendence of values, why do so many persist in denying the truth … digging a deeper hole for themselves with the virtual certainty that the untruths will ultimately be revealed?

There’s often a common thread when this happens

Shakespeare has written that “pride goeth before the fall,” and this weakness of the human spirit seems to be front and center in most of these instances.

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Our pride will fight to the death to avoid embarrassment.

We convince ourselves that we can talk our way out of these predicaments, that we can sufficiently obstruct any inquiries and easily exchange an unwelcome hit to our ego for a falsely constructed storyline.

After all, the various versions of the story are somewhat convoluted, there are few witnesses, and if we’re in a more senior position, we should prevail. Right?

The root of the problem is we try to weasel our way out of it

You see, that choice is at the root of the problem.

That logic suggests that we should examine our alternatives, and weigh whether our story is sufficiently powerful to overwhelm the truth and avoid any embarrassment.

Apart from this ethical washout, countless examples have shown that the more we deny, the more people dig — and that the truth ultimately emerges to not only spoil our narrative but validate us as blatant liars. Our humiliation is profound and converts what may have been only a mild rebuke following a simple mistake and honest admission, to a career-ending injury.

We create more problems than we solve

We create more problems than we imagine when we fail to admit our mistakes at the earliest possible moment.

At that point, the road to recovery becomes very treacherous as we scramble for stable footing in a combat zone we have created. Too bad, because the road to recovery could be a simple one. Tell the truth. Admit your mistake. Welcome the correction. Accept disciplinary action. Live with the pain. Shut up. Learn from your mistakes and move on.

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There are a few bonuses for admitting our mistakes

As with our children, the punishment that follows a prompt and unprompted admission of a mistake is invariably more modest and more quickly forgotten than the results of a prolonged investigation that ultimately leads to the same truth.

While that result should not be the reason to be honest about our mistakes, it’s an unmistakable bonus that we bestow upon each other.

There are a few other added bonuses

For the most part, while we relish the fall of the mighty, we also welcome their redemption.

We know that we’ve made mistakes, and we absolutely believe we should be given second chances.

In some strange way, that conviction seeps into the public consciousness to allow the fallen to redeem themselves as well.

The other bonus we give ourselves is the relief from the crippling weight of the sandbags of lies and and deceit that undermine our health and humanity.

What are you going to do next time?

Oddly enough, the final bonus is a confirmation of our humanity, that we are vulnerable, that we, too, can step off the path of truth and honor and still get back on that path and continue our journey.

The next time you’re confronted with this dilemma, choose the easy course.

Admit your mistake.

You’ll find yourself in very good company.


This article was published in the September 10, 2012 edition of the North Bay Business Journal, a publication of the New York Times, and a weekly business newspaper which I have served as a regular columnist for over four years. The Business Journal covers the North Bay area of San Francisco – from the Golden Gate bridge north, including the Wine Country of Sonoma and Napa counties. The electronic version of this article, as published by the North Bay Business Journal, may be found here.


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