David Wray

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Learn from Mistakes, a 21st Century Leadership Skill

Credit: Jim Davis – Garfield’s take on “Learning from Mistakes”

Learn from mistakes

Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Learn from the mistakes of others, you don’t live long enough to make them all yourself”. That sounds amazing – learn from others and then never again make a mistake yourself! If only life were that simple…

How many of us would agree that we’ve worked with or seen leaders stubbornly refuse to accept or admit making a mistake when it is blatantly obvious to those around that he or she has? It is unsurprising that such behaviour is a career killer.

We (and leaders in particular) need to embrace the idea of making a mistake, learning from it and never repeating it again. The question quickly becomes: How might we foster an environment where this philosophy can thrive?

What skills are needed for this leadership attribute?

The most important attribute in workplaces where mistakes are not only supported but often encouraged is trust. Individuals need to have a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish an individual for speaking their mind or making a mistake.   

This psychological safely is the foundation of fostering a high performing workplace, Google demonstrated this through its four-year study (2016). Leaders play a clear role in establishing whether or not mistakes are learning opportunities or something that breeds fear. 

Effective 21st Century leaders foster a positive workplace that is accessible, accepts fallibility and promotes accountability while preserving psychological safety as shown in Diagram 1. 

Diagram 1 – A 21st Century High Performing Psychologically Safe Workplace

What do these leaders look like?

Acknowledging fallibility

  • Walking the talk to promote a tolerance for mistakes, for instance by openly acknowledging their own fallibility. 
  • Help team members understand that making a mistake is safe but not disclosing it or learning from it is an issue.
Accessibility
  • Getting personally involved in tasks. Rolling up their sleeves and being available to support team members with a lending hand.
  • Always taking the time to explain something (the how and why), never making the other person feel “stupid” and making direct contact easy through short lines of communication (e.g.: no go-be-tweens).

Distinguishing between psychological safety and accountability

  • These leaders hold poor performance to account without handing out harsh punishment for a mistake. Team members embrace the idea of making mistakes and possess the soft skills to productively deal with “failure”. 
  • Excellence is rewarded and poor performance sanctioned all while accepting unavoidable imperfections and mistakes.

Lifelong learning 

From such a safe environment, the learning opportunities are rich and effective. Individuals at every level can do just that by:

  • Own the mistake, don’t blame anyone or anything else. Blaming is detrimental over time, not to mention the loss of a precious learning opportunity. 
  • Approach the mistake differently – rather than seeing it as a failure, see it as an opportunity or challenge to learn and develop.
  • Work to understand what went wrong with your mistake. Identify the skills, information, resources, tools or techniques necessary to prevent a repeat of it.
  • Assess and check in with your progress as changes are underway to prevent a recurrence. 

Share your views and ideas on this topic. Sign into the Member Section to engage in the discussion and share your tips and tricks.

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One comment on “Learn from Mistakes, a 21st Century Leadership Skill

[…] journey may be bumpier than it needs to be. I say this because the whole idea behind a plan is to learn from the mistakes of those before […]

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