The Best Teacher…


…is Your Last Mistake

What is your attitude towards failure? We ask this question, or a variation of it, many times when coaching leaders at all levels of an organization. Interestingly enough, we get more absolute answers from front line managers and supervisors and more broadly defined answers from senior management. Said differently, our experience tells us we see less leeway for failure on the front lines to the point of wanting to be stressfully perfect to a different attitude towards failure where it is a means to learn and grow. I am not suggesting these experiences are scientifically representative, merely what our experiences are with the topic. The question is, why the difference at all?

It’s amazing how frequently we hear about the lessons we learned from our mistakes along the pathway of life. Learning how to walk, riding a bike, driving a car and all the other things that people learn from doing, making mistakes and doing it again until it was a habit. Yet when it comes to work and the complexities and challenges that come with achieving desired results, those lessons are forgotten and the strive for perfection becomes the norm.

The leadership challenge is clear. How does the culture or the organization, which leaders are directly responsible for creating and maintaining, treat mistakes or failures? How do the leaders react when they hear of a mistake or failure within their organization? One of my standard practices as an executive when I heard of a mistake was threefold.

  • Fix the problem ~ When mistakes are made, the first action is always to fix the problem. Trying to blame someone or something when the problem still exists serves no purpose other than to confuse an already confusing situation. Quite often, if the mistake impacts a client, the client may go down this path right away and it is the leader’s responsibility to direct the initial efforts and focus to fixing the problem!
  • What happened ~ Here is where my personal philosophy differed from many others. The first person I spoke with was not the person that made the mistake. The first person I spoke with was the manager of the person who made the mistake. My assumption was always that the person who made the mistake did come to work that day to make the mistake. What was incomplete that caused the mistake?
  • What was learned ~ Obviously, the person who made the mistake will need to understand what they did wrong and how they will work with their manager to make different decisions the next time the situation arises, which it will. Closing the loop with an active discussion of what new decisions will be made the next time ensures all concerned have a new mental image of better decisions without feeling like their career is over!

In his 2011 TED Talk, General Stanley McKrystal said, “Leaders can let you fail and yet not let you be a failure.” Mistakes are a part of the process and yet failure is really only an issue if nothing was learned from the mistake. The only failure is not learning from our mistakes, everything else is the best teacher we can have!

How do your leadership attitudes and behaviors help your team learn from their mistakes?

Lead Well!

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Wednesday, 06 July 2022