How to Take Responsibility


That was the sentiment many people felt when Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellin’s admission about inflation. “I think I was wrong then about the path that inflation would take,” Ms. Yellin told CNN about her comments from a year ago that inflation would be “a small risk” and not “be a problem.”

Secretary Yellin added, “There have been unanticipated and large shocks to the economy that boosted energy and food prices, and supply bottlenecks, that have affected our economy badly that I, at the time, didn’t fully understand. But we recognize that now.”

Ms. Yellin was not alone in this belief, but as the Secretary of the Treasury, responsible for fiscal management, it was a stunning admission. Many citizens regard inflation as the nation’s number one problem. Every time they buy groceries or fill up at the pump, they pay more. As a result, anger and frustration with Ms. Yellin’s boss, President Biden, rises.

Therefore, it takes a person of solid character to admit when they are wrong, especially about a significant issue. The lesson for managers is to admit a mistake and find solutions. While it might be tempting to duck and hide – as many in our political class do regularly—doing so merely passes the buck, allowing the problem to fester and worsen.

What to do next

Everyone makes mistakes. Rather than deflect, the challenge becomes to own the problem and become part of the solution.

Admit the mistake. Address the issue straight on without making excuses. Take responsibility without prevarication.

Stake the consequences. Explain why the mistake occurred. Talk about the consequences of the error. Layout the case in full. 

Find solutions. Make yourself part of the solution. Invite others to join you. 

Own the issue

“When you make a mistake,” said legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, “there are only three things you should ever do about it: admit it, learn from it, and don’t repeat it.” Owning a mistake requires the capacity to demonstrate vulnerability and the commitment to learn from it. Learning requires the capacity to determine the root cause of the problem, listen to those closest to the program, and then mobilize for action.

There are exceptions. Mistakes due to incompetence or ethical transactions deserve consequences. Those mistakes require discipline and often removal. Doing so keeps the organization rooted in solid values.

Stepping forward

When employees see their managers own their mistakes, they see the “real person.” One of the traits that followers like to see in their leaders is vulnerability. A leader who can stand up and admit a mistake reveals his limitations. A leader who works to find solutions by enlisting the support of others demonstrates that the organization needs to move forward, and such movement can only occur when people coalesce and work together.

First posted on on 6.02.2022