Doug Fleener's

The Day Makes the Year


The Terrible Mistake I Made and the Leadership Lesson I Learned

Sep 15, 2023

It was the Sunday before Christmas, and we were mobbed at the Sharper Image store where I was working

The day had been a lot of fun, and the entire staff was in a good mood. All day the store manager, Keith, talked about the lobster dinner he would cook that night after work for some visiting friends. Keith, who was from New Orleans, said, “Buddy, it’s going to be an exceptional dinner and evening.”

At the end of the day, I told him I would close out the register. While going through the closing-out process, the system jammed up. Without thinking, I did the unthinkable. 

I rebooted, forgetting that a company memo said not to reboot the computer during the closing process.

And to my utter disbelief and considerable horror, when the system booted up, every single sale from the day was gone. Vanished.

All I could think was that Keith was going to kill me.

Knowing how much Keith was looking forward to that lobster dinner, I dreaded the conversation we were about to have. I walked over to where he was feverishly cleaning and reluctantly told him that I had wiped out the entire day’s sales and I would have to re-ring every single one. I quickly added that he could go home to his dinner, and I would stay and enter them again.

He looked at me with a smile and said, “Buddy, things happen. The lobster can wait. Let’s get busy.” 

About four hours later, well past the dinner hour, we finished the last transaction, and I closed out the register correctly. As we left, I asked how he could be so calm about what happened. He looked at me and said, “An employee’s first mistake is always on me. Make the same mistake twice, and I won’t be so understanding. Time for me to go home and have some lobster. Merry Christmas, Doug.”

I replied, “Merry Christmas, Keith. Thank you for being so understanding.”

As I watched Keith walk down the mall hallway, he turned, looked back at me, and yelled, “No problem, buddy, the first mistake is always on me.” He turned the corner and headed home to his much-anticipated lobster dinner.

The leadership lesson I learned from Keith that night is among the best presents I’ve ever received. It’s one I gladly pass on to new leaders. By claiming the first mistake for the employee, you allow the employee to grow and learn from their mistake.

We can’t learn from our mistakes if we’re worried about how much trouble we’re in when we make the mistake. People will almost invariably cause more damage covering up their mistakes than by the mistakes themselves. And besides, for the most part, employees don’t intentionally make mistakes. I knew how to close out the register correctly, but that one time, I messed it up. On purpose? Of course not.

So, the next time an employee makes a major mistake that causes your blood to boil, don’t get upset. Just say, “Don’t worry. Things happen. The first mistake is always on me.”