10 Examples of Great Leaders Admitting Their Mistakes

In this article, we’ll share ten examples of great leaders admitting their mistakes the lessons learned.

In fact, these are all very public examples, and they demonstrate how admitting a mistake can be a much better choice than denying it.

"A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them."
John C. Maxwell

Let’s get started with Kenneth Lay and Jim Owens.

Kenneth Lay and Jim Owens

Kenneth Lay is all about learning without having to pay the price. Kenneth Lay, former president of energy company Enron, and Jim Owens, former CEO of Caterpillar, the world’s largest manufacturer of construction machinery, share some characteristics.

They belong to the same generation, started out small, had numerous jobs before climbing up the corporate ladder, and received their doctorates in economics before becoming CEOs of major companies. Yet, these two executives developed their own leadership styles.

Owens learned from failure, while Lay chose to ignore it, and his career ended in disgrace.

Lesson Learned

A common theme for Kenneth Lay now is that the most important lessons learned have to come from trial and error. He learned that real failure is not the result of making mistakes but of avoiding mistakes at all costs, from the fear of taking risks to the inability to grow as Jim Owens did.

CEO of LA Gear

The CEO of LA Gear knows the importance of avoiding the seduction of always saying yes. LA Gear succeeded in selling women’s shoes, but its business failed when the company and its CEO ruined its reputation for superior quality by selling the excess stock at discount stores and diversifying into the sale of men’s footwear.

Lesson Learned

Therefore, in order not to dilute their brands and not to blur the attention of their target audience, the CEO paid attention to the value that was being offered and whether it met the company’s needs, rather than focusing only on their product. Before accepting a new idea, they examined if the opportunity fits with their strategic vision. That is what the CEO eventually figured out.

Marc Andreessen of Netscape

You don’t always have to “get out of the box.” This hard lesson was experienced by Netscape. The company was a forerunner in the Internet browser market until its founder, Marc Andreessen, tried to diversify through a new Java language. Due to this change in approach, it lost its market to the Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Lesson Learned

The CEO learned that “getting out of the cage” is not one of the platitudes of modern management. That approach is not always the way, as the wrong risk can destroy the ability to set the strategic direction of the company. Before taking a risk, the CEO has learned to think about the cage - the limits imposed - such as the line of business, the value proposition, or the segment of the market being targeted.

CEO of Coca-Cola – James Quincey

Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey made the mistake of allowing the competition to set his limit when the company temporarily abandoned its old formula and launched “New Coke” in reaction to a Pepsi campaign. It was a deadly mistake for the brand.

Lesson Learned

He learned not to let the competition set the limits. He realized that it was not the best thing to allow competitors to define the parameters of the company. It was better to make decisions that benefited the company’s overall marketing goals and strategies instead. It was also the ideal plan to research the competition, but to define the market by the target audience.

Aaron Feurestein, CEO of Malden Mill

In 1995, three of the eight factories at Malden Mill, which employed 3,000 workers, burned down. Aaron Feuerstein, the CEO decided to keep paying his workers, even though incomes declined; With that, he won the loyalty of his workers, but the firm went bankrupt. Feuerstein was very eager to please. Managers can also fail in the realm of “personality problems,” for example. Some supervisors are hoarders like Aaron Feuerstein and want to monopolize everything, while others try to show something very unrealistic to their employees.

Lesson Learned

Feuerstein learned that he can’t always be the good boss. He understood that being a leader can mean making unpleasant decisions. He realized that he had to seek respect without the need for approval. From his experience, he began to cultivate a work atmosphere that valued communication, debate, and transparency. He finally recognized that there is no such thing as an “almighty” leader.

Jill Barad, CEO of Mattelen

Jill Barad was named CEO of Mattelen in 1997. Moving up the corporate chart, she spearheaded the great success of one of its products. She drove annual sales of the Barbie doll from $235 million to $1.5 billion. However, even after she was appointed CEO, she insisted on examining the smallest details. Her refusal to delegate caused a sense of helplessness among the employees and a lack of direction in the company. The outcome was catastrophic.

Lesson Learned

Jill Barad learned that one person could not take on too much workload. She realized that in order to build the team’s confidence, empowerment, and reliability, there has to be trust. She now delegates work and gives employees the room to grow and develop professionally. Now, she knows which employee is ideally suited to perform each task well. It has taken the burden from her where she can tackle other important projects.

Jared Heyman of Infosurv

Jared Heyman founded Infosurv, a successful company that he started when he was 20 years old. When he turned 32, Heyman wanted to do everything he had wasted in his youth, like touring the world. As an executive, he was secluded. He did not have an open-door policy for his employees. Instead, he typically worked behind closed doors. Therefore, when he decided to travel extensively, his employees didn’t miss him.

Lesson Learned

Jared Heyman learned that when he is such a distant leader when the company faces a difficult situation, no one is at the helm, and that is why there has to be a failure in the process. He learned to be a present leader and not isolate himself from his team. He also changed how he handled his staff by having an open-door policy so that he knew what was going on and was not kept in the dark. He wanted to remain in contact with his employees, even if he was thousands of miles away. He tried to make them feel as if he was present and that they were important to the company’s success.

Carly Fiorina of Hewlett Packard

Carly Fiorina’s period at the helm of Hewlett-Packard (HP) shows the consequences of the actions of a famous leader. He forced the merger of 87 divisions into four - a decision that the corporation had to reverse later. He acted against the model of open communication HP and bought an executive jet despite the fact that 18 thousand employees lost their jobs.

Lesson Learned

Carly Fiorina is one of those leaders who considered himself a celebrity. He made decisions outside of the company’s model and learned that it could be costly. He learned that his actions were too personal, and he should involve the team in decision-making and do extensive research on what would work best for the company. He learned that communication with the entire team is vital and important decisions like a merger have to be considered carefully.

Debra Cleaver, CEO of Vote.org

Some CEOs make the mistake of delaying an employee firing. In the end, it can cost them. This is what happened to Debra Cleaver. She was the founder and CEO of Voter.org in 2016. She took too long to end the employment of a specific manager. He was not a team player and created toxicity in the work environment for the rest of the team members. Time and effort were spent in coaching him to do better, but that time was wasted.

Lesson Learned

Debra had to do a whole revamping of the team, and now she has taken a different approach. She has documented the company’s defined values. Therefore, before someone can join the team, it has to be the ideal fit. She learned that if it is evident that someone does not fit, then after the probation period, the company will let them go.

CEO Michael Alexis of TeamBuilding

Michael Alexis is the first one at TeamBuilding to admit that he did not know how to delegate responsibilities. He wanted to do everything himself. If there is an issue, he took it on, even if he already had enough workload. He admitted that he did not have the skills needed to give feedback and direction. He found himself being behind all the time, working overtime to catch up and blaming others for the incompetence in not delegating.

Lesson Learned

He eventually discovered a way to provide employees with good feedback and developed enough trust to be able to assign small products with a desired outcome. If the outcome is desirable, he will give the employee larger projects to complete.


Being a great leader does not mean being perfect, but being open to change and willing to learn from mistakes.

"Take risks. Ask big questions. Don't be afraid to make mistakes; if you don't make mistakes, you're not reaching far enough."
David Packard

As a leader, you should be flexible to modify what is necessary and willing to put the team on your shoulder while valuing their efforts. To avoid the dangers of distancing, assess your degree of commitment. Build bridges with your employees and earn their trust.

About the Author
Hi there, I'm James, founder of Melbado. I have over 20 years of experience as a leader and entrepreneur. Recently, I turned to leadership coaching and writing to pass on my knowledge to the next generation. If you have any questions or comments, please contact me via our contact page.


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