The Courage to Admit Mistakes . . . Real Leadership


We must be big enough to admit mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.  ~John C. Maxwell

One of the hardest things in life to do is admit a mistake.  We get personally embarrassed and worry about what our friends will think.  And it’s even worse in business and politics. Admitting a bad decision or error in judgement is, many executives and politicians believe, a death sentence and terminal sign of incompetence.

The truth however, is just the opposite.  People respect those with the courage to admit mistakes, take accountability, find a solution, and move on with lessons learned. Standing up and admitting a mistake takes a great deal of courage, which sadly seems to be in short supply today in both business and politics. Which is worse, admitting a mistake and making it right, or continuing to defend a bad situation?  Neither is fun, but it’s results that matter in the end.

IOC says 'totally unfeasible' for London to step in for Rio as Olympics 2016 hostAnd we are now seeing a great case study of just this type of situation. The 2016 Summer Olympics to be held in Rio de Janeiro.  While the decision may have seemed appropriate at the time, the world economy has changed and so has the political and economic climate of Brazil.  Brazil is no longer one of the darling BRIC super economies with robust growth forecasts. The country is mired in political, economic and social chaos, not to mention soaring crime, pollution and a general population indifferent, at best, to hosting a world sporting and media event.

And not only do the Brazilian people not want the games, the infrastructure development for the various venues is way behind schedule (IOC members estimate the infrastructure is only 20% ready with just two years to go) and the traffic and tourist infrastructure is equally poor. Not to mention grotesque and dangerous waterway pollution where the sailing and other outdoor aquatic venues are scheduled.

Some of the Olympic officials are suggesting that London host the 2016 games, since most of the infrastructure is already there, or even Tokyo, whose preparation for the 2020 games are well ahead of Brazil. It would not be the first time a change of venue has happened.  When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1908 forcing the games to be moved out of Italy to London.

But the IOC leadership is vociferously defending their previous decision awarding Rio the 2016 games.  In fact, there is not even a plan B according to Olympic officials.  Instead they are sending in project management experts to support and oversee the Brazilian organisers and construction teams.  Sounds to me like pouring good money after bad in order to defend a previous decision.

A mistake is an opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.  ~Henry Ford

I would feel a whole lot better about the prospects that things will be finished and ready were the Brazilian people more supportive of the games.  After all, it is the people in the country that make the games a pleasant and world-class event, or a visitor’s nightmare. Having been in both Rio and Sao Paulo recently, I don’t see much local enthusiasm on the part of taxi drivers, hotel clerks and the general population.

Maybe the IOC is waiting to see how the Football World Cup in Brazil in 2014 turns out. Meanwhile, time is the enemy for a successful Olympic venue solution, and the courage to admit a mistake seems to be in short supply.

(I hope I am wrong on this and will gladly admit I made a mistake if and when the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil are a world athletic success.)

John R. Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

John also writes thriller novels:


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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1 Response to The Courage to Admit Mistakes . . . Real Leadership

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great post, John. For an object lesson in Truth and Redemption, see Tour de France cyclist Tyler Hamilton tell his story. The more you have to lose, the harder it is to face up. His testimony to truth brought down the Lance Armstrong myth. Proud to say I am riding with Tyler this summer in his MS GLOBAL fundraiser.


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