“I Was Wrong” vs “I Made a Mistake”

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“I’m sorry. I made a mistake.”

How many times have you heard a leader offer up that kind of explanation for something they’ve done?

Got caught fudging the numbers?

“I’m sorry. I made a mistake.”

Told a blatant lie?

“I’m sorry. I made a mistake.”

Had an inappropriate relationship?

“I’m sorry. I made a mistake.”

Here’s the point. Somewhere along the way, our culture has come to accept the phrase, “I made a mistake” as being the same as acknowledging, “I was wrong.”

But these are not the same thing. Not even close.

And leaders must recognize the enormous differences between the two if they are to protect their integrity and their character.

Here are 5 important distinctions between making a mistake, and doing something wrong.

  1. A mistake is an honest error involving facts or miscalculating an outcome.

    Doing something wrong involves a moral failure.

  2. A mistake can result from attempting new initiatives.

    Doing something wrong can result from knowingly crossing a clear ethical boundary.

  3. A mistake can be a learning opportunity resulting in growth.

    Doing something wrong can lead towards the erosion of character.

  4. A mistake can indicate there is an area of competence that requires development.

    Doing something wrong can indicate there is an area of character that requires development.

  5. A mistake is something that leaders should never fear.

    Doing something wrong is something leaders should shun completely.

For leaders there are important ways that understanding these distinctions can enhance your leadership today.

  • If you tried something new and it didn’t work out? Own it. Acknowledge the mistake, learn and move on.

  • If you committed a breach of ethics, don’t call it a mistake. Let people know you were wrong. Fix it, and learn from it.

Everyone makes mistakes. But not everyone does something wrong and calls it a mistake. The difference sounds minor, but the implications are significant.

For leaders who value their integrity, it’s a distinction worth mastering.

the author

Scott Cochrane

Lifelong learner, practitioner and coach of leadership, across more than 50 countries. Follower of Jesus, husband of Nora, grateful parent and grandparent.


  1. I was once asked if I had made a mistake or an error. How do you differentiate that?

  2. Amen! I’ve been preaching that message for a long time in the business world. I’m flabbergasted by the shear numbers of people who avoid taking responsibility for violating moral principles by saying, “I made a mistake” and even more frustrated that most people don’t see the difference and as a result, serve to promote the continuance of those destructive behaviors. But I get it: self-deception, rationalization and justification has been going on since sin entered the world. So let’s be honest with ourselves. Sin is cosmic treason against the God of the universe and the only answer to our problems is Jesus. Period. Dot. But I also know this: The really important things in life are simple, but the simple things are hard to do. None the less, if and when we are willing to make that journey, we will find freedom.

  3. Hello Scott,

    Your’re spot on with this post. As a variation of “I made a mistake” versus “I was wrong,” I’ve found that many people will use the work “apologize” instead of “sorry” as a way to distance themselves from their wrong behavior.

    The word “apologize” means a recognition that an error or mistake was made whereas “sorry” connotes a sense of regret or remorse for one’s behavior. In order to build (or rebuild) trust with people, I believe leaders need to fully own the consequences of their behavior. Admitting your mistakes and expressing remorse is one of the quickest and most powerful ways to rebuild trust.

    Take care,

    Randy Conley

  4. John, I am struck by the level of energy and passion you bring to the conversation. I sense you’ve been dealing with this issue for some time and growing in your frustration towards the lack of responsibility our culture seems to promote. As another example of this, look at how many issues we once called “vices” or simply “sin” are now called “diseases”. I’m not saying there isn’t an element of truth in the “disease” diagnosis, but it also further distances people from personal responsibility. Thanks for weighing in.

  5. Randy, what an interesting, and important, distinction between the words “apologize” and “sorry”. You are quite right; there is a world of difference here. Many people today seem quite incapable of owning up to their own wrong-doings, and in some cases the closest they’ll come to accepting responsibility is indeed to “apologize”. That’s close. But it’s not really owning up to personal responsibility. Really appreciate you sharing your perspective Randy.

  6. Jennifer, that’s an interesting question (the difference between a mistake versus an error). At first glance I would say these are synonyms. They both seem to point to having simply miscalculated an outcome. For example, I would think these terms would be interchangeable with respect to math problems. What do others think?

  7. Scott, I appreciate the distinction you are making. I do take issue with how you define wrong and how this must be crossing moral and ethical lines. What is “wrong”? According to who? Example, abortion. Right or wrong – depends who you talk to. From a leadership perspective I have had some leaders do things that the previous leader considered wrong – but it was purely matter of opinion. Neither bosses i considered morally corrupt. Mistakes should be celebrated as part of a learning and growing organization, as long as that does not lead to a culture of I’m sorry (with no action). We should just stay away from labeling right or wrong.

  8. Thanks for the comments and insights Grant. I fully agree with your conclusion; “Mistakes should be celebrate as part of a learning and growing organization.” What a great way to position this. Well said. However, I take a less ambiguous view of “right” and “wrong”. Using the examples I cite in the post, if a leader steals money from the company, that’s wrong. I wouldn’t quibble about it. If person in position of authority makes inappropriate comments of a sexual nature to a subordinate, that’s wrong. In leadership concepts of right and wrong should not be easily confused.

    Thanks a lot for contributing to the discussion.

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