Confess Your Mess


Marv Nelson explains that leaders gain respect when they own their failures and shortcomings, not when they ignore problems or shift blame. In confessing your mistakes, you model humility and become more able to learn from failure.

As leaders, our messes — whether private or corporate — are a bit more public than those of the average person. When leaders mess up, they can shift blame, pretend it never happened, or offer confession. What leaders hear and believe is that they will lose respect if they are honest about their failures. I have found however that this is a lie. Time and time again I’ve seen respect grow for my leadership when I confessed an issue.

Leaders do not have to be perfect. Leaders do not have to have it all together. Leaders do not have to prove they deserve to lead by acting perfect. But leaders must come to grips with this: They will mess up and people will see their mistakes. When leaders mess up, it’s not going to be kept quiet. In fact, it may be the buzz of their organizations. Leaders can ignore their failures and mess-ups, excuse them away, or own them. When leaders own those failures, shortcomings, and mess-ups, people see that the leader is serious about honesty and, I believe, will respect them more for it.


Confession is one thing. Apologizing is another. When leaders mess up, especially when they sin against someone, they must be bold and apologize, ask for forgiveness, and seek to no longer sin against that person. By apologizing, leaders model humility. And if leaders are to lead as Jesus led, they must learn humility.

This is not something to implement only with staff or young leaders who are being raised up. Leaders should be quick to apologize in their families, with their kids, and with their spouses. Whether leaders themselves notice it or not, these things are seen. When leaders can keep short accounts with everyone in their lives, it is felt, and it proves the sincerity of their leadership in every aspect of their lives.

Remain teachable

As leaders, we must also remain teachable in our willingness to learn through seminars, book, and other areas of education. We live in a changing world that rapidly moves away from what it once was. Leaders must remain cognizant of that change and remain willing to learn, adapt, and grow within it. A hunger to learn is an admission of one’s need for more knowledge.

Leverage life lessons

When leaders tell their real-life stories, sharing their failures as well as their successes in their stories — the areas where the leaders got it right and the areas they learned from when they got it wrong, they display the reality that God can use them with all their wrinkles and warts. Jesus taught with stories. Granted they were not parables about himself, but he leveraged stories to teach. Leaders must do the same. If leaders desire to be known by the people they are leading, they must share personal stories.

I think one of the most powerful forms of leadership is being honest and transparent about shortcomings and weaknesses. When leaders make a bad decision, they should own it. When leader are struggling, they should be honest about it.

This article is excerpted from Unleash: Empowering the Next Generation of Leaders (Abingdon Press, 2018) by Marv Nelson. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

Marv Nelson

Marv Nelson is lead pastor at Indiana Alliance Church in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Previously, he served as the College and Campus Plant Pastor at Allegheny Center Alliance Church, a multi-ethnic, inner-city church in Pittsburgh. He is author of Unleash: Empowering the Next Generation of Leaders (Abingdon Press, 2018), available at Cokesbury and Amazon, and What Good is Jesus? (Ambassador International, 2016), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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