How to Learn from Your Leadership Mistakes

How to Learn from Your Leadership Mistakes

At one time or another, everyone makes mistakes

There's a storm buffeting a midsize manufacturing operation that is having difficulty fulfilling orders in a timely manner. This storm was already swirling around the company when I first spoke to its CIO. At the time, Roger was sitting on the sidelines and watching the business attempt to mitigate the damage. He had predicted the storm a few years ago but his words fell on deaf ears.

Roger felt justified in assuming an "I told you so" stance as the storm hit the European operations, taking perverse pleasure in seeing transpire what he knew would happen all along. Then, due to changes in the organizational pressure system, the wind shifted and IT felt the brunt of the storm. Despite leaking levies on the business side (including ignorance about the ERP system and turnover of key staff), IT occupied the lowlands. Roger found himself bailing water.

At one time or another, everyone makes mistakes. Whether the mistakes are temporary setbacks or career killers depends on a leader's attitude and approach. Every great leader I know will freely admit to making mistakes and be able to identify what he learned from each one. Most average leaders lack both the confidence to admit mistakes and the introspection and awareness to identify what they should have done differently.

It's easy to assign blame externally when culpability is shared and the actions and shortcomings of others are easier to identify and analyze than our own. This was certainly the case with Roger. However, leaders also have to believe in their abilities to lead others, so admitting fault fuels uncertainty about one's own competence. Many find it too hard to go to such a vulnerable place. Roger eventually accepted his share of responsibility for the storm raging around the business. In doing so, he learned three lessons that bear repeating.

Admit accountability. Roger now realizes that personal power — defined as the belief that one's own actions can make a difference — is enhanced by saying, "It's my fault." If you truly believe that you share some of the blame, then you can identify what to do differently going forward. Without accountability, you run into a mental cul-de-sac, where possible actions to remediate the situation raise uncomfortable questions because surely those actions would have made a difference earlier on. Not only should leaders freely admit their wrongdoings, but they should do so as early as possible to contain the damage, retain credibility and work out next steps in a more tolerant climate. Roger stopped raising red flags because he met with resistance; instead, he should have kept to his principles and changed his tactics.

Step up. A few weeks ago, Roger admitted to me that "No one is providing any leadership in this situation." He didn't understand that once you admit accountability, the natural and essential follow-on act is to assume a leadership role in fixing the situation. Failure to do so puts a death nail in careers because it confirms to others that, while the leader may understand what went wrong, she or he doesn't possess the capabilities to make things better.

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