How Making a Mistake Made Me a Better Leader
Making a leadership mistake never feels valuable in the moment. I can think back over years of leading people and relive many memories of taking responsibility for failures and oversights. Each of these memories is attached to a feeling of remorse, but those mistakes were sources of significant growth within me. Every instructional error taught me a new way to approach leading my teams and how to create more committed teams.
For instance, early in my career, I failed to have what would have been just a few awkward conversations along the way with a team member. In the end, that avoidance meant losing that employee – who gave a bad (and deserved) negative review of my skills during their exit interview. However, shortly thereafter a similar situation occurred and I was determined to improve. In this case, I gave my leaders exact instructions on how to communicate a meaningful change that was coming to our department. We discussed the significance of sharing the vision behind the change (or as Simon Sinek might say, the “why”), and I also required that these conversations be face-to-face. Instead, one of my staff members sent a short email and received a terrible response from their team; damaging our team’s culture in the process. The mistake I had made previously – poor communication resulting in the loss of an employee – had produced a shift within me. Even though the moment had passed and there was little that could be done to correct the mistake, I had an immediate conversation rather than letting the issue grow.
Mistakes can also teach you to consider new questions. I am a firm believer assessing solutions by asking myself questions. I have a list of questions I ask myself, and I am always looking for additional items to evaluate. Many years ago I experienced an incredible streak of leadership success, but that can be a dangerous thing; particularly when it’s prolonged. The more extended the period of success you maintain, the lower your ability to recognize weaknesses. This inability is not due to leaders losing the ability to make sound decisions, or because they become complacent or lazy. Success merely masks flaws, making it more difficult to spot the need for innovation or improvement.
I certainly had not become lazy when my success helped me transition to a new leadership role in a struggling department. Even though my strategies had worked well for years, they repeatedly failed in this new career challenge. Meetings were boring, morale was low, and employee engagement seemed to be non-existent. Worst of all, I could not determine why. I was near the point of admitting leadership failure and moving on when I decided to share my struggles with my mentor. He cut straight through the issue with a single, elementary question, “does your team trust you?”
I was success-blind and unable to see it just moments before. As disappointed as I was to now know that I hadn’t been meeting the needs of my team, I was relieved to know the right question to be asking. This single item was the catalyst that corrected my course.
Success can blind you as a leader. It can cause you to stop asking questions. Past success can cause you to skim past foundational issues or to rely on previous solutions. Asking the right questions means the smart decisions are easy to see. Remember that the longer you remain successful, the more difficult it can be to get a fresh perspective.
Has success caused you to stop asking questions? Have you passed up the opportunity to learn from mistakes, choosing instead to just “move past” them? Step back, evaluate, relate your challenges to others, and allow yourself the gift of growing from your own leadership mistakes.