The better a man is, the more mistakes he will make, for the more new things he will try. I would never promote to a top-level job a man who was not making mistakes … otherwise he is sure to be mediocre.
– Peter Drucker, leadership expert
What do you do when you make a mistake? How do you feel?
How do you react when others mess up? How do you make them feel?
Do you find a way to gain benefit from mistakes and prevent them from taking you and/or your organization off track?
As an executive coach, I find many business owners, CEOs, and other leaders that continue to recycle employees who failed to make perfect decisions and act properly every time. On the surface you might be thinking, how big was the mistake? Many of these executives also use the cliché, “We pay them the big bucks NOT to make mistakes.” When you read my upcoming article, “Passing the Buck – Taking Responsibility for Mistakes,” you will see why blame is typically being placed on the wrong people. Worse yet, the leaders who don’t tolerate errors typically hold people to standards higher than those that they themselves achieve and attainable by less than 1% of the population, if that much. These are the very same leaders who cannot understand why their employees are not motivated, the same leaders who typically offer better-than-average compensation to keep people, yet still find it difficult to retain or attract top talent.
In a well-run organization, you should expect that the more “senior” the executive or leader is, the more mistakes he is likely to have made. As Peter Drucker says in the above quote, if they are not making any mistakes, they are mediocre at best and should never reach the senior ranks. The higher the position, the more responsibility, the greater the range of decisions and issues, and the more likely that mistakes will occur. It does not matter how many battles a leader has fought and won … no one can possibly know or have seen everything. The world, people, competition, and issues are constantly evolving, and so must leaders.
Even the greats like Jack Welch provide volumes of examples of when they have made poor decisions, handled a person incorrectly, misread a situation, and just did things that their bosses disapproved of. It is human nature and part of the game of business. Imagine that Jack Welch’s bosses ignored the great things he did and only saw his mistakes. They would have stifled and eventually lost one of the greatest leaders of the Fortune 500.
When problems occur, the challenge faced is not the mistakes, but the attitude towards them. Past errors, failures, and negative experiences do not inhibit the learning process – they actually contribute to it. Some of the best products in the world were the result of mistakes, and some businesses emerged from events considered mistakes. Here are some examples:
Does the way a person respond to a mistake define him/her as a leader? Leaders who regularly punish and criticize people for mistakes, regardless of position, will actually reduce their personal power within an organization. The leader will eventually lose the respect of others, reduce motivation, and hold back the company. Moreover, by not utilizing mistakes as a learning tool, one is persisting in mediocrity, creating an environment where people will “play it safe” and “do things the way we always have” in order to avoid disfavor. Leaders might verbally tell people to “think out of box” and/or reinvent their positions; however, actions, body language, and tone can speak much louder than the words.
By attacking others for mistakes or mistakenly finding that it’s “easier just to do it myself,” a leader prevents others from learning what they are capable of becoming. Or, if a leader depends on someone else to prevent the possibility of failure, they will find that they are actually preventing themselves from developing leadership. Further, many leaders make the mistake of trying to be involved in every decision so that mistakes will not happen. All they accomplish is to make a bunch of people depend on them and stifle their organization. They need to stop taking themselves so seriously, and let their people develop.
Mistakes and errors are necessary steps in the learning process and can be a powerful tool in motivating employees to help take an organization to the next level. Reviewing errors should be a means to an end – not an end in itself. Once they have served their purpose, mistakes should be forgotten. No one enjoys making mistakes, but everyone makes them. Your leadership progress is determined by your attitude toward yourself and others. “Failure” is a state of mind, but when leaders view errors as learning experiences, organizations bounce back even stronger.
Apply these Five Steps when mistakes occur:
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Reference and excerpts taken with permission from Leadership published by Resource Associates Corporation, Mohnton, PA.