Every time a leading sports figure gets caught up in some questionable circumstance, there is instant talk-show clamor over the dearth of role models. If there is one person outside the family who is well-positioned to give children a standard of proper behavior, it would have to be the president of the United States.

Unfortunately, for most of his eight years in office, George W. Bush set a poor example in that he would not - or could not - comprehend the possibility of his making a mistake. If President Obama wants change, he can ensure it by continuing to take direct responsibility for things that go wrong.

And they certainly will, as this week's botched nominations showed. No one's perfect. Not every decision is the right one. Far from being an indication of weakness, though, conceding a mistake can be a powerful move toward proficiency.

You can't begin to learn from failure until you acknowledge that you have failed. To help make it a precept we can all learn from, it might not be a bad idea for our new president to redefine failure, especially for the children watching him, as being an important stepping-stone toward success.

Bush did finally admit an error - the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner - in his final news conference as president. But that was years after his administration had blamed Navy sailors for the error.

And Bush framed his other blunders, for the most part, as mere "disappointments." He was disappointed, for example, that the predicted weapons of mass destruction were never found in Iraq. But disappointment is far from admitting a mistake. In fact, it distances a person from a mistake.

We can change by learning from our mistakes and failures. Disappointment is only a feeling, and you don't feel your way into real change. Why would Bush correct his handling of emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina, for instance, if he couldn't admit the response was too slow?

Accepting our mistakes is far harder than making them. If it weren't, the lessons wouldn't be of much value.

Our children need role models who aren't afraid to admit their imperfections and learn from them. There are countless real examples of how this works. One was, believe it or not, a professional athlete.

In what may have been the single most embarrassing moment in the history of professional sports, Minnesota Vikings rookie Jim Marshall picked up a fumbled football just before halftime and ran for the goal line - the wrong goal line. He ended up scoring for San Francisco, the wrong team, in front a sold-out stadium and on national television.

Marshall virtually crawled into the locker room amid jeers. He didn't want to come out for the second half, but he remembered what his father had taught him: If you make a mistake, you have to make it right. "I realized I had a choice," Marshall told me. "I could sit in my misery, or I could do something about it."

The second half ended up being one of Marshall's best. He hurried the opposing passer into three interceptions and caused the fumble that Hall of Famer Carl Eller picked up and ran in for the winning touchdown. Afterward, Marshall acknowledged his mistake and his shame to reporters.

Soon, thousands of calls and letters started coming in from people Marshall had never met. They told him of their own embarrassments. Most of them said they had never told another person about a mistake, but what Marshall had done gave them the courage to do so. It freed them from their secrets, and they felt better for it. "My mistake had actually helped others," Marshall said. "What a gift."

After his playing days were over, Marshall made what he had learned his life's mission, opening community centers to help youths, senior citizens and immigrants. "We reveal the mistakes, show them how to become responsible citizens, and allow them to make it right," Marshall said. Now that's a role model.

Seemingly fearful of getting anything wrong, Bush and his admirers have defended his presidency by saying history will prove he was right about most things, including Iraq. My guess is that history will prove that he never learned a thing from history.

This week, in reference to his ill-advised nomination of Tom Daschle for secretary of health and human services, Obama said to reporters: "Did I screw up in this situation? Absolutely, and I'm willing to take my lumps. You know, that's part of the job here."

Let's hope learning from his mistakes is also part of the job. That's what role models do.

E-mail Steve Young at theeothersteveyoung@juno.com.