Leaders make decisions, and it’s inevitable that some of those decisions will not lead to a great outcome. You probably don’t need me to elaborate on that point any further, we’ve all been there. But how should you handle the situation as a leader, once it’s apparent you chose the wrong path? There are a few things you need to focus on to maintain your credibility as well as keep your team moving in the right direction.

If you were to ask a modern leadership consultant what you should do after you make a bad decision, they will likely tell you (if they know what they are doing) to “take ownership of the situation”.  You’ll hear people say “you need to own the situation”, “take ownership of your team”. Personally, I love the concept of “ownership”, and I strongly believe (and my personal experience can back it up) that ownership is the best way to handle a situation that did not end up positively.  But I think we often don’t quite understand what is implied when we say we are “owning” the situation.  To truly “own” a situation, there are two things required:

1. Admit You Failed

The first is admitting that you are the reason for the failure. A leader owns the situation by claiming he or she is the reason they are in the situation to begin with. A leader must take personal responsibility for the direction their team has taken. It’s not the fault of the weather, the economy, your company, or anything else. The fault lies solely on you as the leader who thought about the risks, prepared for what they thought was important, and executed a plan to get to where you are today. Obviously, you didn’t analyze the risk well enough, prepare thoroughly enough, or execute properly, otherwise you wouldn’t be where you are today. That’s not to say you are a bad person or a failure of a human being, you just did not lead your team properly. If you immediately blame everything and everyone but yourself for the poor outcome, you are actually admitting that you have no power to lead. You are showing you have no foresight to avoid problems, no way to analyze risk, no method to control actions or communications. If all these things happened that you could not control, or foresee, or plan for, why should you be a leader at all?  Is that really what you want to project as a leader? The first part of “ownership”, and handling the aftermath of a bad decision, is to admit you, as the leader, are the reason for the failure.

2. Take Action

The second critical part to taking ownership of a bad decision is taking action to correct the issue.  You’ve just admitted that you, as the leader, are to blame for where you are, so what are you going to do about it?  What can you learn from your situation to never repeat again? What steps can you take to bring your team back to a successful outcome?  It is very common to hear leaders say “I take responsibility for what happened”, which is great, but if that responsibility is never followed up by aggressive action to make the situation better, that’s not really worth anything; that doesn’t help the organization get better, it’s just lip-service. A leader who “owns” the situation demonstrates they care by placing their focus on what they need to do to get better.  A leader who “owns” the situation has a debrief session where he or she analyzes what went wrong and develops a new plan to make things better. A leader who “owns” the situation doesn’t have time to dwell on the failure, they are already moving forward full steam to get back on track.

If you want to be a leader who brings the most impact to your company, who helps your team be the most successful, adopt the ownership mentality when you make a bad decision. If you’re like me, you are probably tempted to immediately blame someone or something other than yourself, because there is no way you could be an unsuccessful person. Furthermore, you might tell yourself that “everybody will think I am a bad leader if I admit that I am the one who screwed things up.”  And honestly, they will think that IF you don’t immediately follow through with the second aspect of ownership, which is to aggressively learn and make changes to improve your team.  Your team, your employees, your peers, and your boss will respect you immensely if you live out your feeling of responsibility by solving the problem you created. That’s how you “take ownership of the situation”. That’s how you recover from a bad decision.