Leaders Make Mistakes

15 Aug

Go ahead, make a mistake.

I dare you!

I double dog dare you!

Forget that–I triple dog dare you!!!

Maybe I should explain.

I’m not talking about intentional mistakes made on purpose to cause harm or sabotage, I’m talking about real mistakes. Mistakes you make when you are really trying, really risking, and working your butt off to “do it right,” and something slips. Something goes wrong.  Make those mistakes!  Those mistakes not only separate leaders from non-leaders, they can house some of our greatest wisdoms.

Most of the time what we–as over-achieving leader-wanna-be’s–think of as mistakes aren’t mistakes at all, they’re just adjustments – like an airplane.  I remember when I first started traveling for business I read in an in-flight magazine that an airliner is off course about 90% of the time (how’s that for reassuring?).  Between the curvature of the earth, wind currents, earth rotation, etc. a plane is constantly adjusting – and so are we!

What many people chose to see as mistakes, and hence beat themselves up for as “failures,” are nothing more than a course adjustments.  We learned something new along the way, got a clearer heading (or a clearer head), discovered something that didn’t work, adjusted accordingly, and kept on moving in the intended direction with our passengers none the wiser.  Why? Because they don’t care!  Most people don’t know all the details you know and wouldn’t know you were marginally off course if you didn’t tell them.

It’s time to separate mistakes from full-blown failure; course adjustments resulting from new information and realizations, from significant mistakes.  Real, honest to goodness mistakes, the ones that really cause hurt and damage, the ones not easily adjusted from, those are much harder to make and occur much less often, though many people I have coached and met act as if they are constantly happening.  They’re not.

The difference between leaders and non-leaders is that non-leaders want to criticize themselves for every single little minor infraction as though it were a real mistake, even when no one else noticed or was affected.  Leaders simply take the new information into account, learn from the lesson, adjust their heading and move on.  And when a leader, a real leader, makes a significant mistake that causes harm, they own the mistake. They seek forgiveness and solutions, engage their team of experts and move on to repair the damage and implement the lesson/s.  Leaders see no real value in wallowing in the mistake and using it as a weapon to punish themselves. Instead, leaders see mistakes and wisdom, knowledge, insight, power, and they stand tall, own their responsibility, learn, respond, adjust, and move on!


Steven Fulmer was the opening keynote speaker at the ODK’s 48th Biennial Convention and Centennial Celebration held in June 2014 in Lexington, Va.  He is the author of “Leadership Just Got Personal.”

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