Midway through a round of employee terminations, resulting from a company acquisition, it happened. Someone got missed.
My body still tightens up when I remember that moment.
When I think of what I value most – kindness and connection – it’s no surprise that I feel/felt it so viscerally.
And yet, even in the worst circumstances, sometimes because of them, that’s when you learn the best lessons.
I arrived at work early along with the other members of the core HR team. We had checklists to complete our tasks and had divided up the workload.
I received a phone call from an employee saying her building pass didn’t work when she tried to enter the office building that morning. Then she reported she couldn’t log on to her computer.
My heart dropped.
I investigated internally and found her name on one team member’s list but not the other. To clarify, I spoke to the department head who confirmed the termination decision. Green light. So I prepared a termination package and then the manager and I conducted the final conversation with the employee shortly thereafter.
Imagine how awful it must have felt to not be able to enter your own office or log on to your computer. What dread she must have felt, knowing deep down that something was amiss.
I’ll never know for sure because she didn’t tell me. She kept a brave face in that moment.
Negative saboteur thoughts abounded within me, although I lacked the tools then to understand them. I couldn’t even clearly articulate my critical inner voice(s). I just knew I felt terrible about what happened.
Now I can identify those voices so let me share what they said:
- The Judge: How can you treat someone like that? You’re an awful person.
- The Stickler: If you were more organized – more perfect – this would never have happened. It’s your fault.
- The Controller: You need to manage every aspect of every termination in order to prevent this from happening. The buck stops with you.
Notice the tone of these voices. They’re not helpful; they’re hurtful. And, ultimately, they only heaped guilt and shame instead of helping me learn from my mistake.
In fact, that experience was the catalyst for me quitting that HR role and shifting to project management for a few years, which eventually led to me becoming a professional coach. It all worked out in the end.
My coach training, supportive friends, and lots of reading helped me process my biggest mistake as a leader. I was able to speak from the perspective of my Leader Within – or Sage – not the voice of my saboteurs.
Here’s what my Leader Within said:
- Stop rushing. That’s when mistakes happen.
- Find ways to stay grounded so you can self-manage in tense situations.
- Be human. It’s not about what happens but how you respond to it.
- Mistakes happen. No one is perfect, including you.
- Respond with kindness and empathy. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.
- Separate yourself from your job or company. You are not your job title or company brand.
- Do your best. That’s what matters.
Blessing in Disguise
My biggest mistake as a leader turned out to be a blessing.
By focusing less on the mistake, because that’s really about ego, and more on the lessons, which revolve around being in relationship with one another, I learned it’s all boils down to connection. And when things are hardest, that’s when you double down.
How I respond in that moment matters more than what happens. Maybe I had to mess up to truly understand that leadership doesn’t require perfection; it just means showing up as my best self. It’s about righting wrongs with compassion and kindness.