Spilled Drinks and Defining Leadership Moments

We all make mistakes at work — sometimes they're even really big, embarrassing mistakes. But no matter what happened, what matters a whole lot more is what you do afterward. I gave some impromptu coaching on this subject at a surprising time: after a waiter had just spilled a tray full of drinks all over me.

I was out with family members at a restaurant close to home when the waiter fumbled, giving me a sudden shower of iced tea and soft drinks. The spill was such a jolt that I jumped up out of my seat. But what was really surprising was the waiter's reaction: Instead of helping me or apologizing, he started to clean the table. I couldn’t believe I had to ask for a towel as I stood there dripping.

Luckily my home is close enough to the restaurant that I could dash back, change clothes and return to salvage the meal. Back at our table, though, the mess from the spill wasn’t getting cleaned up, and the waiter was MIA. When I got back, I called the manager over to take our order.

At the end of our eventful lunch, over an hour later, our waiter finally reappeared with the check and an apology. He said was used to being a strong performer and nothing like this mishap had ever happened to him before. He was so shocked that he just didn’t know what to do.

I told him that I wasn't mad about the initial spill – because it wasn’t intentional – but what did trouble me was how he reacted afterward. The fact that he completely avoided a difficult situation told me that he wasn’t willing to take ownership. And was that really the message he intended to send? I encouraged him to not let one slip-up define him because he knows he’s better than that.

By the time we finished our conversation, he looked like a new person. As I stood in the parking lot with my family as we said our goodbyes, the manager ran out to tell me the waiter was beaming and thanked me for taking the time to coach him.

At one point or another, we all find ourselves in this waiter's shoes. We mess up; everyone knows; we wonder how we'll ever recover. These times can be defining moments in our leadership. Like the waiter, we can be remembered for the mistake or how we respond and recover — it's up to us. And remember, if you’re the person on the receiving end of the mistake, you can help the other person grow and learn from their mistake.

This week, take some time to think about your last big goof and how you recovered. What would you do differently next time? You'll find more ideas on defining yourself as a leader on my WOW! Program Highlight Audio℠.