So You’ve Made a Major Mistake as a Practice Leader—Now What?

Angela Davis Sullivan


Dr. Burbank was devastated. He’d gone to a conference and learned about a great new service that he couldn’t wait to offer in his practice. He’d gone all-in: bought the equipment, hired a firm to help with marketing the new service, and spent a vast sum training his team. Everything was in place for success—or so he thought.

Six months later, not a single patient had offered to try the service, even at a steep discount. The marketing campaign was a dud. The team was angry about wasted time and money. He had failed and failed miserably. He could feel the judging eyes of the team as he walked down the corridors of the practice. He could see his failure in the numbers on his financial report.

It wasn’t a complete disaster, though. The practice would survive. Employees would be paid. Still, he felt like the failure reflected on his business skills and leadership ability. How could he ever bear to try anything new again? How could he regain the respect of his employees?

All entrepreneurs make mistakes. If you look at the life histories of successful businessmen, their big successes came after strings of failures. Sometimes they failed after they succeeded. Even Steve Jobs wasn’t a design genius all of the time. For those of us in the medical and dental industries, this creates a problem.

We have been primed to see mistakes as the enemy. We got into professional school by being perfect students. We became doctors by doing well on exams. In our day-to-day clinical practice, mistakes can injure, maim, or even kill our patients. We have to be perfect. We can’t afford to make mistakes. This attitude is great for a doctor.

The problem is that when we run our own practices, we’re not just doctors. We’re also business owners. We need to learn to balance our inner perfectionist with a new character, one focused on the business and willing to fail big and fail well. We need to nurture our inner entrepreneurs. 

So, how does someone who is used to finding value in their ability to succeed cope with failure? Fortunately, we can look to the world of business for advice.

Step One: The Golden Rule Applies to You, Too!

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, clinical psychologist Christopher Germer described the concept of self-compassion. Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to comfort and build up a friend or a family member who had experienced a big failure. But when we talk to ourselves, we tend to be negative. We berate ourselves, point out all our worst faults, and wallow in shame. To deal well with failure, we need to break this cycle. Germer recommends three steps to a more compassionate approach to our failures:

  • Mindfulness: To deal with our feelings, we must first recognize what we’re feeling and name it. Are you ashamed? Do you feel sick in the pit of your stomach? Use words to describe your feelings to yourself. “I am ashamed and feel like I let the practice down. I feel stupid for not doing more research. I feel angry and disappointed that no one wanted my new service.”
  • Common Humanity: The next piece of the puzzle is to acknowledge that your feelings at failure are a normal part of the human experience. Most people are ashamed when they fail. Most people feel angry and stupid. It is okay for you to have these feelings in this moment. It is part of being human.
  • Self-Kindness: When friends fail, we might hug them, bring them a cup of tea, or go for a walk with them. Show these kindnesses to yourself. Take a walk outside in nature. Lay a hand over your heart and vow to be kind to yourself. Have a warm cup of tea and a favorite snack.

By completing these three acts, you give yourself a chance to grieve the failure, repair your self-image, and find a bit of calm. Once you’ve practiced self-compassion, it’s time to face your team, not from a place of shame, but from a place of honesty and calm.

Step Two: Be Honest and Open 

This is the most important step for maintaining the respect of your team. A good business leader doesn’t make excuses or seek someone else to blame. A good leader acknowledges the failure and takes responsibility for the results. Dr. Burbank could blame the marketers for failing to bring in the right kind of new patients or his team for not selling existing patients on the service. Instead, because he wants to be a good practice leader, he will take responsibility.

Taking responsibility allows you to move forward, as a team, to solve the problem and recover from the failure. If you make excuses or blame other people, you’re not alleviating your shame. Instead, you’re simply pushing shame onto other people too. A shame-filled practice is not a productive practice.

When you take responsibility, your team feels relief. They also feel more confident. They know that you’re in charge, that you can recognize when you’ve made a mistake, and that you respect them enough to be open and honest with them about your own failures. Taking an open and honest approach to your failures as a leader helps build a healthier practice culture. 

Step Three: Analyze Your Mistake So That You Can Learn from It 

Once you’ve practiced self-compassion and been open and honest with your team, it’s time to start working on recovery. You’ve dealt with the grief and shame that comes from making a mistake. Now it’s time to think like a real entrepreneur and fail forward. 

Work as a team to analyze the failure. What were the steps of the disaster? What went wrong? What would you do differently this time around?

Dr. Burbank realized he should have spent more time on market research before he added a new service. His team also recognized that, while they’d been trained to provide the service and educate patients about it, they hadn’t really worked to identify the patients most in need. The patient care coordinator suggested that she could develop better financing options for interested patients, and the whole team agreed that the marketing campaign had relied too much on advertising and not enough on word of mouth and social media.

After the team spent time thinking about what had gone wrong, they were able to work with Dr. Burbank to develop a plan for adding future new services and even come up with ideas for salvaging the time and money they’d already invested in this one.

When you move beyond shame, take responsibility as an entrepreneurial leader for your failures, and work to learn from your mistakes, failure is no longer a disaster for your practice. Develop your “inner entrepreneur” and allow it to coexist with your inner perfectionist, and you’ll be able to improve your practice culture, help your team learn to recover from their own mistakes, and better serve your patients and your community.

Ms. Davis Sullivan is a practice management consultant with more than 30 years of experience in both the clinical and business sides of the dental industry and the author of Coming Home to a Better Practiceavailable through She is a certified trainer for Forte’ communication styles and for John Maxwell’s management philosophy.

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