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How to Learn from Your Leadership Mistakes

Jul 25, 2008
We learn most from our mistakes. It's true. But problems occur for us when we forget this. Or when we deliberately deny that we made a mistake. And - if we're honest - most of us do this, from time to time.

So in this article I want to share with you the IMPORTANCE of learning from your mistakes. AND how best to learn from your mistakes.

These ideas were first captured for me in a little known book by Calhoun Wick and Lu Leon way back in 1993, but their thinking on how to learn from mistakes has never been bettered, so I want to share my views on this with you now.

The key point I want to get across is that that success stops you learning. The main suggestion I want to put to you here is that, when we take action and we succeed, we just don't learn. We don't bother. We say things like - 'I always knew I was going to succeed'. Or 'I'm clearly the best'. Or 'what's next in my in-tray?'

This is the case unless you actively build in time to review that success. Most of us, however, prefer to push on to the next challenge, perhaps never being really clear HOW we succeeded. For most of us, just winning is enough.

This mindset creates a major problem for us. Because when we fail at something, when we don't meet the expectations we set out at the start, it's a shock, a major setback.

Now the good news is that this sets up the possibility of learning. So the second key message is that, in the same way that success kills learning, failure kickstarts learning.

However, there is a problem; or rather, three problems. There are three things we tend to do when we discover that we made a mistake somewhere along the line. Let's look at these in sequence.

First, we don't admit we made a mistake. It's a natural habit, not to admit we made a mistake. Actually it's more likely that we can't believe we made a mistake. Our subconscious mind is trying to protect our ego, to save face. So we just don't admit we made a mistake. Big mistake.

Secondly, either subconsciously, or worse still consciously, we try to conceal or minimize our mistake. To bury it so no one can find it. Find a shallow grave somewhere...

Now, I've seen this in a major restaurant chain. They reported their weekly sales figures to head office and they were rising. But this masked the fact that the number of people attending the restaurant, the number of covers, was actually falling.

To mask the fall in customer numbers someone just increased the menu prices to make up for the shortfall. No one noticed that the number of covers, the people attending each week, was falling off dramatically.

The third problem is blame. If you actually do admit you made a mistake, but then you start a witch-hunt, you'll kill learning. The sole purpose of a witch-hunt is to blame someone else, to direct attention away from you, to someone in the team or in another department, perhaps. 'Who did this?' we say. 'C'mon, who did this?'

So let's recap: there are three situations where you have the possibility of learning, but your action - how you respond to the mistake - can kill learning.

1. You can kill learning if you don't admit you made a mistake.
2. You can kill learning if you try to minimize or conceal the mistake.
3. You can kill learning if you admit there's been a mistake, but try to blame someone else.

But there's something even worse just round the corner. If you don't tackle these three problems, the mistakes won't be fixed. This could happen all over again tomorrow.

The only surefire way to learn from our mistakes is firstly to admit there's been a mistake and then to act differently next time.

Don't waste energy and emotion on finding the culprit to blame them. By all means find the weak link in the chain of command, so you can help, but don't focus on the past, on what happened in the past.

Instead focus on the future. What needs to happen next time? Then just do it. Act differently in the future.

Successful learning involves analysing the past and present, yes, but it's mainly about acting differently in the future. Learning is about change. And to lead change successfully you need to accept that we're human and we make mistakes.

Use the way that you personally deal with mistakes - your own and those that others make - to inspire your team. Don't blame them - build them up - improve their skills or knowledge for the future. Remember the words from the immortal song - it ain't what you do it's the way that you do it. That's what gets results.

Learning - your learning, your team's learning, your company's learning - demands change.

How much change are you prepared to embrace when it comes to admitting mistakes? What's your mistakes policy? If you haven't got one, get one.
About the Author
If you want the leadership success you deserve, get the leadership training you deserve. Download more free articles and leadership training videos from Steven Sonsino, an international business school professor and author of the Amazon bestseller "The Seven Failings of Really Useless Leaders"
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