Even leaders make mistakes

To err is human, said the poet Alexander Pope over three hundred years ago. Everyone makes mistakes. Scouts make mistakes. In fact, the Scouting program is built partly to allow young people to safely make mistakes and learn from them. In the words of Samuel Beckett, No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

But while making mistakes is a common and not often fatal attribute, in certain cases they can cause disruption in an organization. The fatality arises from the inability to recognize mistakes for what they are.

You’ve probably encountered someone who just can’t admit having made a mistake. Saving face is all important to them, and the appearance of having made a mistake is interpreted as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. They’ll go to any length to pretend they didn’t make a mistake, or tell a twisted story to try to justify their action and prove, in some small part, that they didn’t err after all.

Yes, leaders make mistakes too. Some are big, some are small, but no matter how hard they try, they still do. What sets a great leader apart from the rest is the ability to recognize the mistake, resist the urge to embellish the facts to their advantage, and report to those they lead that they goofed. (Yes, I borrowed from the three Rs of child abuse prevention, but you get the idea.)

When leaders make mistakes, they’re usually a lot more visible than when others do. This is because we generally expect leaders to be in control of the situation and have responsibility for outcomes. Mistakes can disrupt things, affecting many others. Great leaders admit their mistakes, fix things up and move on. Failing fast is one flavor of Beckett’s concept.

Leaders who admit their mistakes are viewed as being more trustworthy – one of our twelve points – because it shows that they are in touch with the effects their actions have on the teams they manage. It shows that they can responsibly tolerate mistakes in others and encourage them to learn and improve. And because making mistakes doesn’t always result from negligence but is more often from having made a less than optimal choice, it encourages team members that it’s all right to be a bit daring, to try something new that might not work, and that they won’t suffer consequences if they get it wrong the first time. We’d still be in the dark if Thomas Edison had been punished for having chosen the wrong material for the filament in his electric light bulb the first time, or the tenth or fiftieth time. He tried thousands and thousands of materials – six thousand plant sources alone – before finding that tungsten worked best.

Sometimes, mistakes can lead to team development. Ever do one of those “what’s wrong with this picture” puzzles? Honest discussion of how to improve a process or situation can not only correct a mistake but can help a  team learn how to do better next time. And great leaders trust the people on their team to do their best.

Certainly, mistakes shouldn’t be happening all the time – being prepared is part of the key – but when mistakes inevitably occur, fixing them fast and taking the opportunity to learn from them is the mark of a great leader.

Image: Marco Verch / Creative Commons 2.0 

This post first appeared on Bobwhite Blather.
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