How to Fix Leadership Mistakes – Learning from CNN’s Example

Even the best screw up. So how do you make it right? Warner Bros. Discovery and CNN demonstrate how to fix leadership mistakes.
As a servant leader, it's important you know how to fix leadership mistakes. In this image, a businessman apologizes for his mistake as stakeholders look on. Source: Midjourney

Even the best leaders make mistakes. So how do you fix your leadership mistake? How do you make it right when you really screw up? We can learn a lot from what Warner Bros. Discovery is doing at CNN right now.



  • Even the best leaders make mistakes
  • When we really screw up, there are best practices to follow
  • David Sazlav at Warner Bros. Discovery has really screwed up with CNN
  • However, Sazlav recently took steps that set a good example



CNN’s recent challenges began when longtime CEO Jeff Zucker resigned. The official reason for resignation? He failed to disclose a consensual relationship with CMO Allison Gollust. More likely, the decision had something to do with Zucker and new parent company Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav clashing leadership visions for the network.

To replace Zucker, Zaslav placed Chris Licht in charge of CNN. Licht was blamed for several bad decisions in his short 13 months leading CNN. From massive layoffs, to programming changes that hurt ratings, to enabling the spread of lies by former president Trump. However, there’s strong speculation that rather than leading his own way, Licht was largely Zaslav’s puppet. Regardless, morale plummeted and with it, CNN’s ratings.

In the two years since acquiring CNN, Zaslav seemed to practice the Elon Musk school of business management: How fast can we destroy a brand? But not so fast. Zaslav recently took steps that should serve as lessons when we screw up as leaders. Here are the steps to take when we make leadership mistakes….

STEP 1: Admit Your Mea Culpa

The first step is to admit your mea culpa. Be a little vulnerable. Humanize yourself to those impacted by your mistake. This requires self-awareness and establishes strength and confidence with those you lead. Unfortunately, Zaslav did not take this step himself.

LESSON 1: Accept accountability. Everyone already knows you made the mistake. If they don’t yet, they will soon. Your failure to also be vulnerable will only dig you a deeper hole. Vulnerability may not get you out of that hole, but it can be a ladder enabling your exit.

STEP 2: Stabilize the Situation

Following a series of bad decisions and facing rapidly sinking employee morale, Zaslav implemented “The Quad”. The Quad is a name employees gave to the group of four individuals Zaslav identified as an interim leadership team after he fired Licht. The four include:

The interim leadership team made swift decisions to increase employee confidence.

LESSON 2: When you know you messed up bad, don’t waste time. Move quickly to stabilize the problem. To maximize speed, this will often require interim solutions. Be transparent about the temporary nature and use servant leaders.

STEP 3: Ensure the Medicine is Not Worse Than the Disease

Licht, or the directions he followed from Zaslav, was worse than the problems CNN found itself in when he was hired. After firing Licht and establishing the Quad, Zaslav looked for the perfect replacement. He seems to have the ideal CEO in Mark Thompson.

Thompson is the former BBC executive and recent CEO of The New York Times. At the BBC, he steered the organization through many difficult issues, including:

  • Editorial guideline breaches
  • Claims of political biases
  • Several top talent controversies

While navigating these issues, Thompson accepted accountability, if not responsibility. Furthermore, he successfully reestablished the trust and confidence of stakeholders.

While president and CEO of The Times, Thompson was credited with leading the company’s transition from traditional print news to a digital media powerhouse.

LESSON 3: Many leadership screw-ups have been exasperated by hasty decisions. In step 2, you bought time to make the right, long-term decision. Don’t rush it. If you do, you may find the medicine is worse than the disease and dig yourself a deeper hole.

Zaslav and the Warner Bros. Discovery team may have planned this all along. After all, it’s convenient they reduced costs through rash choices that angered staff and now get to move on with a fresh new leader, free of the blame. Still, some of the steps they took in recent months teach valuable lessons. If we focus on the best of their example, we learn how to fix big leadership mistakes.

This post also appeared on our LinkedIn newsletter at:


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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