Mistakes are often seen as weaknesses. Few leaders, for instance, go into a board meeting and say, “Let me tell you what I did wrong this month!”
Yet it’s impossible to never make a mistake.
Smart leaders understand that a mistake is an opportunity to learn and improve. Inventor Thomas Alva Edison once remarked, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Fortunately for us, Edison and his collaborators didn’t give up. In his lifetime, he singly or jointly submitted 1,093 patents. Without Edison and his “10,000 ways that won’t work,” development of the phonograph, incandescent light bulb and cinema might have been delayed for many years.
In that same vein, my mentor, John C. Maxwell, not only recommends embracing your mistakes, but asking others for feedback. In his book, Leadership Gold, he has a chapter entitled, “Your Biggest Mistake Is Not Asking What Mistake You’re Making”. In it, he emphasizes that not knowing your mistakes can blindside you. He writes that if you think you’re the only one who knows you’ve made a mistake, you’re fooling yourself.
A Seattle consultant I know of traveled the country advising hospital administrators how to fix problems. They paid her good money to spend a month at their facilities to determine what was needed to fix procedures and policies that no longer worked. She found that while management often was perplexed as to what changes needed to be made, staff members almost always knew what needed to be done.
They lived with management’s decisions – management’s mistakes – and could clearly see what was broken.
The lesson to be learned is to embrace mistakes and ask trusted advisors, especially your staff, to help you find solutions. Granted, staff members might not always want to share for fear of retaliation. That’s why it’s up to you to foster an atmosphere which allows everyone to participate in the solution.
Let them know that you not only value their input, but you will work to improve yourself and the situation. To get the ball rolling, make sure you:
Ask direct questions about a new project to draw out specific examples
- Praise those who speak up
- Create an action plan for correcting the problem and share that plan with others
- Remember, it’s the mistakes that Edison saw as being key to his success.
“Negative results are just what I want,” he said. “They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.”
Of course, you first need to know what mistakes you’re making – so if you don’t know, don’t be afraid to ask.