Sunday, February 17, 2019

If no one's noticed, should I own my mistakes?

What do you do when you realized you've made a mistake? Do you wait to see if someone takes notice? Or immediately upon recognizing your error do you own up to it and come clean?

If no one notices, does it matter? To some, it does.

After the most recent State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress by the president, according to his own admission on his social media accounts and in a subsequent article by J.D. Simkins for Air Force Times, Air Force General Joseph Lengyel noticed while observing photos of him in the audience that something was off.

"What's wrong with this picture?" Lengyel asked in his Twitter post. The answer, provided in the same post: "The ribbons on my uniform are upside down."

There's no indication that anyone even had noticed Lengyel's mistake let alone scolded him for it. Nevertheless, it was an egregious enough error that he felt the need to call attention to his own error -- an error he presumably would not appreciate among any of those reporting to him. (He's currently chief of the National Guard.)

"A key characteristic of a good leader is one's ability to put pride aside and admit one's own mistakes," Simkins wrote in the opening sentence to his article on the incident. He also noted how the response to Lengyel's posts admitting his error was applauded.

The general had not worn ribbons he didn't earn. He did nothing dishonest in how he wore them. He merely made a mistake by wearing them upside down, something that only others in the military might have noticed had they seen the photo. But even then, who knows? Lengyel was seated among several other generals who presumably didn't notice his mistake up close or they would have said something.

There's always a risk in admitting mistakes whether in business or personal life. It's rare to want to be perceived as not being on top of your game every waking minute of the day. Many hope, particularly when it's not a malicious, deceitful, or dangerous error, that others simply won't notice and the issue of your error will never come up.

But Lengyel knew he made a mistake. He also knew the photo of his mistake was out there for all to see. But even if it wasn't, it would be good to believe that he still would have posted a correction once he discovered it.

If integrity is as Stephen Carter writes in Integrity (Basic Books, 1996) discerning the issue, acting on that discernment, and stating openly what and why you have done something, Lengyel displayed integrity.

Owning up to his personal error is something the rest of us might emulate when discovering our own errors. We should do so not just because it's best to get in front of a personal mistake before risking that it blows up when someone else discovers it and starts questioning why we never acknowledged it on our own. We should own our mistakes as soon as we discover them because, as Lengyel's example illustrates, it's the right thing to do.

"One thing is for sure," Lengyel wrote on hisFacebook post. "My ribbons will NEVER be upside down again." 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


1 comment:

vishnu-rajeev said...

It is also a smart social strategy. Embrace your mistakes before others point it out. You get extra credits for being the honest person and also, do not have to be defensive.

But, the real question is, how would the same person react if the severity of the mistake was much higher? Will he/she own up the same way? IMHO, a smart person should do it immediately rather than pile up the skeletons in their closet.