Admitting Mistakes: Mark McGwire and Gerald Levin

On January 11th, I turned on the MLB network to find Mark McGwire admitting to steroid use during his baseball career. I confess I wasn’t all that shocked, but I was still hurt. As a junior at Emory University, I remember exactly where I was in my dorm room when he hit the home run that was to break the single-season, home-run record of Roger Maris. With the admission that he took steroids during that season (as well as others), my fond memory of McGwire hitting number 62 – almost missing first base, lifting his son with a hug when he touched home, hugging Sammy Sosa who was also in the running for breaking the record, and giving the Maris family a hug in the stands – was officially stained.

The week prior to this disappointing news, I was watching CNBC as Gerald Levin admitted he was at fault for the “worst deal of the century” between Time Warner and AOL. As the CEO and man in charge, he was taking full responsibility and apologized for the pain and suffering he had caused.

All of these apologies got me thinking…when and how should people, leaders in particular, admit to mistakes and apologize for wrong-doing? Some say swift and quick action is best, others believe apologies should be crafted and staged, while some feel that leaders should never apologize because it is a sign of weakness and they risk “loosing face.”

Yale Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld knows something of the subject, and observed that Levin’s admission was quite different from leaders of the past (read his thoughts here). Sonnenfeld has written several books and articles focused on how leaders bounce back from failure, and in particular, how leaders should own up to their mistakes in a timely manner, admit when they are in the wrong or have failed, and ultimately move forward. Doing so shows an authenticity, genuineness, and class that leaders need to demonstrate when acknowledging mistakes and failures. In order to avoid repeating the same mistakes again in the future, there is a need for leaders to communicate what exactly went wrong.

We are all imperfect, mistakes…inevitable. Next time you find you have erred, think back on Sonnenfeld’s recommendations for dealing with failure: (a) acknowledge responsibility; (b) show remorse and contrition; and finally, (c) atone and reform.

What are your thoughts concerning when and how leaders should admit their mistakes and failures? Share your experiences, knowledge, and lessons learned so we can all benefit.


Baseball Photo credit: Marcus McCurdy   Lightbulb failure photo credit: Beat Küng 





About Bill Gentry

William (Bill) is currently a Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and also an adjunct assistant professor at several colleges and universities. In applying his research into practice, Bill’s current focus is on helping leaders who are managing for the first time in their life. His research interests are in multisource (360) research, survey development and analysis, leadership and leadership development across cultures, leader character and integrity, mentoring, managerial derailment, multilevel measurement, and in the area of organizational politics and political skill in the workplace. He received a BA from Emory University and an MS and PhD in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of Georgia. Follow Bill on Twitter: Lead_Better
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2 Responses to Admitting Mistakes: Mark McGwire and Gerald Levin

  1. I just wonder how many other MLB players are out there who have padded stats because of steroids. It’s time for them all to come clean. We can forgive if they can admit their mistakes.

  2. Most body builders are not educated on the use of steroids, because of legal implications of course, so these potentially dangerous products are taken without any supervision from an experienced and qualified doctor.

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