I Screwed Up

Thanks go to President Obama for timing his first major Presidential misstep to coincide with my delivery of a “Being a Trusted Advisor” workshop.

In class, we had been talking about human nature and the gravitational pull to avoid admitting culpability and generally looking bad when—voila—there appeared the perfect teaching point on the front page of the New York Times.

Whatever your politics, there are two key lessons to be derived from the “I screwed up” message that President Obama delivered on the heels of Tom Daschle’s withdrawal from consideration as the next secretary of Health and Human Services:

1.  Take full responsibility. He pointed his own finger at himself. He didn’t say “I regret the unfortunate circumstances and misinformation that led to the selection of Mr. Daschle.” He didn’t hitch his wagon to Daschle’s admission of his own mistake. No, Obama said, “I screwed up.”

2.  Keep it simple. He used plain talk. Three simple words. I told workshop participants to use no more than ten words when there’s a hard truth to be told. Obama came in seven under.

Telling the truth when the truth makes you look good (as in, “Mr. Client, I have 20 years of experience solving the kinds of problems you are facing right now”) increases your credibility by demonstrating your expertise.

Telling the truth when the truth makes you look bad (as in, “I screwed up”) is a trust trifecta: your honesty boosts your credibility, your humanity creates intimacy, and your willingness to subordinate your own ego lowers your self-orientation. 

It’s another part of the trust paradox: doing what makes you look bad (telling the truth) makes you look good.  As long as you really mean it.


4 replies
  1. Kelly
    Kelly says:



    What I liked best about it was that he fulfilled two campaign and transition promises: he promised to screw up, and he promised to admit to it.


    By getting it out of the way quickly, I for one breathed a sigh of relief. In the back of my mind lurked, "Oh, sure, you say that now…" but he’s proved it. He’s willing to fail out loud and take the rap. Now, he can go forward and succeed out loud, and folks will give him the kudos wholeheartedly.





  2. Stewart HIrsch
    Stewart HIrsch says:


    You’re right on target, of course!  And there are copycats already.  The President of Brandeis University is reported in the Boston Globe today as saying:  "To quote President Obama, ‘I screwed up’" 

    I’d like to add to your thoughts – I think that saying "I screwed up" is jsust part of the equation.  The paradox only works if an apology is sincere and not a technique.  To me that means taking responsibility and fixing it, or at least working sincerely to fix it where possible.  We should challenge all those who follow President Obama’s example of acknowledging mistakes to do the follow through as well.


  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    On another level, the inner plane, telling the truth is what keeps one fresh and alive, light and lively. "The truth will set you free" is no trite statement. "Fessing up" is what allows one to shed the heavy, protective and defensive armour of the lie, or (self-) deception.

    It takes a lot of energy to keep a lie, or deception of self or other inside. It’s like a cancer that eats way at our heart and soul. It’s tiring and debilitating – mentally, emotionally, phsysically and spiritually.  

    The "I’d rather be right than happy" mantra, in the sense of not admitting one’s missteps, makes one stiff, brittle, and encased in a state of constant vigilence and defensiveness – most always accompanied with a low-grade-fevel-type of agitation of being "found out" or about  telling the truth.

    What I admire about an Obama and others like him is that they’re comfortable in their own skin, easily self-effacing – that they see life on a macro level and know that they’ll makes messes along the way as a function of living life itself.

  4. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    Andrea: A number of years  ago, I was involved in a consulting engagement for a well known, privately-owned company. There was a SNAFU that occurred that was going to end up costing the company a lot of time and, of course, money.

     The chairman, president and owner was a highly respected SME & entrepreneur. Aside from being brilliant, he had the reputation of being demanding, decisive and precise – qualities that helped to create the high quality goods he manufactured but to the chagrin of many, he tended not to suffer fools easily. Needless to say, the idea of having to face him and tell him I screwed-up wasn’t something I relished. I saw my entire consulting career pass before my eyes. 

    I explained the situation to him & the steps I had taken to stabilize the situation, analyzed "why it happened" & then made the appropriate correction to prevent from happening again. To start and end that explanation, I emphasized,  " I’m sorry, I screwed up".

    As I waited for what seemed like an eternity, he finally responded, "everybody makes mistakes, I don’t judge people that way". "I judge them on the way they handle them". "Thank you, now that the situation is under control, let’s keep this going and try to stay out of the sheep dip". 

    That was a lesson (and pearls of wisdom) that I never forgot and have used that illustration with all the staff that have worked for me over the years…


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