Don’t Fear Mistakes, Just Learn From Them

Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, believed in building a culture that embraced failure and making mistakes. In fact, one of Watson’s most famous quotes is, “The way to succeed is to double your error rate.”

So what does make a great leader? Some may believe that great leaders make fewer mistakes than average leaders. Actually, the opposite is true. Great leaders make mistakes in how they handle people and situations, but what sets them apart is that they learn from those mistakes.

Do you and the leaders at your organization recognize mistakes for what they are–a great opportunity for your team to learn and grow? Although Thomas Watson died in 1956, his legend of embracing failure and mistakes lives on. You may have heard the story of a 1940’s IBM employee who made a mistake that cost the company about one million dollars. Knowing that he was about to be fired, the employee typed up his letter of resignation, and handed it to Watson. Watson responded: “Fire you? I’ve just invested one million dollars in your education, and you think I’m going to fire you?”

To paraphrase John C. Maxwell: “A person must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.” Do your senior leaders take risks, make mistakes, publicly own their mistakes, and determine a plan for what they will do differently? To increase the odds of hiring leaders with this attitude, ask candidates to tell you about one of the biggest mistakes they have ever made in their career and what they learned from it. People who have a hard time admitting mistakes will tell you about the surrounding circumstances and why it was not really a mistake given the information or people they had at the time.

It takes confidence to truly admit to your mistakes and learn from them. Without that level of confidence, you will end up defending the things you do wrong and will never allow yourself an opportunity to grow and find different ways to do things.

As Watson stated to the employee, your mistakes actually make you more valuable to your organization if you can learn from them. But, there is a case to be made that it is a lot cheaper to learn from other people’s mistakes. So we interviewed leaders to ask what they feel have been the biggest mistakes in their career, and what they have learned from those mistakes.

Based on our interviews, here are 10 mistakes almost every great leader has made, admitted to, and learned from:

  1. Not communicating a compelling, positive vision with clear goals: Great leaders have learned that even when they think everyone on the team is clear on the vision and goals, these two points cannot be over communicated. In the absence of ongoing communication, the vision becomes diluted and the goals lose focus, clarity, and alignment.
  2. Hiring the wrong person: Great leaders have all learned that it is impossible to pick the right person on every hire. The best leaders tend to hire slow, but fire quickly when the person they hired is not a good fit. Hoping the wrong fit will turn around rarely works. Hoping and hinting that the behaviors need to change actually causes the organization to lose momentum and is disruptive to the team. Great leaders have the guts to say, “I made a mistake in the candidate I selected. I need to quickly move the individual along, and hire the right person.”
  3. Not holding an employee accountable to the goals or desired results: To be a true leader, you need to be respected. And, leaders who don’t hold everyone on their team accountable, find it almost impossible to gain respect from anyone on their team.
  4. Remaining a hostage too long: A leader becomes a hostage when they know an employee is not going to change to achieve the desired results, and the employee knows that the leader doesn’t have the guts to correct the problem.
  5. Allowing a problem, conflict, or disagreement to go on unresolved for too long: Conflict doesn’t resolve itself over time. Great leaders have learned that when there are conflicts or disagreements, they need to “lean in” to the conflict and realize that this is their moment to shine.
  6. Taking too long to fire a poor performer or a deviant team member: Why do some leaders achieve better results than others? They share poor performers quicker with a competitor and replace them with a new person who is committed to achieving extraordinary results.
  7. Not delegating: The positive results from delegating, such as developing people and freeing up the leader’s time for more important strategic or thinking tasks, far outweigh the risk of the task not being done exactly how the leader would have done it. To delegate, leaders need to trust people. When people feel trusted, they will go out of their way to help both the leader and organization succeed.
  8. Evading feedback: Great leaders know that asking for, accepting, and acting on feedback has helped them to make the course corrections needed to grow.
  9. Having a high need to be liked: While it’s important to be caring and friendly, it’s very difficult to be friends with the people who report directly to you. To make tough decisions, great leaders recognize that some people won’t be in agreement with the decision, and some people won’t like the leader for having the guts to make the decision. If your goal is to be liked and make people happy, you would be better off being a clown.
  10. Not providing enough recognition and/or failing to celebrate success: A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of listening to Rear Admiral Russ Penniman tell a group of employees at the San Diego County Fair how proud he was of being a Board Member for the 22nd Agricultural District, and how proud he was of the job the staff did in producing one of the nations’ best fairs. He shared the model that has guided his entire career: mission first, people always. Great leaders truly know that nothing extraordinary happens without a team of exceptional people, and because of this, are always focused on helping others feel valued and appreciated.

When great leaders make a mistake, they admit it, apologize when appropriate and then quickly move on. Mistakes offer leaders a chance to grow and to change in a way that will benefit both them as a leader and the organization they lead.

What are some hard lessons you’ve learned as a leader?

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