The Meaning of Being In Charge

african queen
Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.

On a steamy afternoon last summer, a mid-sized PR agency in New York City hosted an event for recent graduates. The purpose was to attract, meet and potentially hire interns.

The presenter was one of the agency’s most senior executives, a woman in her forties. She took the remote of the TV to start a slideshow but hit a button that made the screen go black. She flustered while unsuccessfully trying to fix it and when she finally handed the remote to one of her younger colleagues, she said, “This shows that I’m not the one that can be in charge.”

I perceived the remark as a poignant expression of the “impostor syndrome,” but also as a typical resort of women when making a mistake–even a silly, unimportant one.

Don’t justify your mistakes

We oftentimes feel compelled to justify our mistakes–’I hit the wrong button because I am not the one that can be in charge.’

Justifying a mistake allows you to relinquish your responsibility. The Spanish saying goes, “The cobblestones are to blame.” But if you don’t own your mistakes, will you be able to own your successes?

Or will you justify your successes as well?

Don’t berate yourself

Women tend to berate themselves when they make mistakes. This behavior shows two things: first, that they assume there’s someone judging (and probably validating) them–an authority figure–and second, that they’re afraid of being judged negatively.

The former implies that a woman who berates herself is not in charge of her own performance, achievements or mistakes because she believes someone else has to approve of her. Therefore, this woman will never be seen as a leader, since she needs to be ratified or refuted by someone at a higher level.

The latter entails that she will remain at the most basic level of trust, the Ability–’I can’ level, which makes her trusted to perform tasks, but not to lead people.

Own it

When someone with intrinsic, personal power makes a mistake, they assume it and move on. If an apology is necessary, they apologize and move on.

Why moving on is key? Because being a leader requires that you are a visionary, which means looking at the future.

When visionaries make a mistake (and believe me, they do), they look for ways to solve it and learn what not to do moving forward–key word: forward.

Justifying a mistake or berating yourself means that you’re set in the past. Perfectionism means you’re not looking ahead (‘perfect’ comes from the Latin word that means ‘past’).

Imagine what a different impression the PR professional on that summer afternoon would have made had she said, “That was the wrong button,” and then, handing the remote to a member of her team, “Could you handle this for me, please?”

We would have seen a professional woman who can be in charge–of an agency, its clients, teams, and interns.

In other words, we would have seen a leader.

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