Actually, I’ve made more than one mistake over the years as a leader in various leadership positions.  I’ve apologized when my mistakes affected others and have tried to be forgiving of myself when the mistakes only impacted me, hopefully with a little humor.  There is so much knowledge carefully cataloged in my memory from these experiences along with the echoes of my Granddad’s voice telling me on multiple occasions to always admit my mistakes.  John Maxwell, in his book Leadership Gold, quoted Poet Archibald MacLeish who said, “There’s only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.” 

 I recently had a young leader call me and ask how to move beyond mistakes.  I thought of a former mentor who openly said that she wanted to know about mistakes when they happened because that was the best time to deal with them.  She promoted a culture where mistakes were a learning tool rather than something to be hidden or punished.  The story I shared with the young leader, however, was one about another mentor’s response when I detailed a mistake I made. He said, “Well, now you know how to do better next time.”  There was no reactive response from my mentor, just a wise appreciation and respect for my learning; mistakes were a learning tool in the culture he promoted too.

Dan Rockwell, spoke about failures and mistakes in his blog entitled, Something’s Always Broken.  He said, “You’re never successful without failure.”He quoted Chris LoCurto in his blog who said the following:

“Treat people with dignity.
Don’t let people be blamed.
Focus on issues. Everyone makes mistakes.”

These are wise words that speak to the fact that blaming is toxic.  When a mistake occurs, it is most productive to focus on the issues, learn from what has not worked, and work individually or collaboratively to achieve better results; this approach reinforces our shared values of lifetime learning and growth.   In a culture where mistakes are learning tools, we become freer to discuss our mistakes with each other.  This leads to becoming wiser together without having to make all of the mistakes ourselves.  

Further, taking risks requires a willingness to make mistakes.  Albert Einstein said, “A person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new.”  And it was Robert Kennedy who said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”  Mistakes are always part of growth and fear of making one can prevent growth.

There was more to my conversation about mistakes with the young leader.  I told him it is not productive to wear mistakes in a way that prevents moving forward; if worn too tightly, movement is restricted.  We can always revisit mistakes and get in the moment of what happened, some of which can bring back deep emotion, but to stay in that emotion can be stifling.  I said that we must be able to reflect on our mistakes and use them in a way that informs how we move forward.  Maybe I should have talked more about forgiveness.

The EHHS Division’s most highly ranked shared values are Respect and Empathy.  At an EHHS community gathering in the spring of 2011, we stated that one way we can demonstrate these values is to share our challenges as well as our successes. Being open about our mistakes honors a way in which to share challenges.   Individually, and as a community, we can support each other’s growth and learning as we focus on the issues.  As we do this, we will be preserving the dignity of others and ourselves.    

Maxwell, J.C. (2008). Leadership gold: Lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime of leading.  
     Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.