April 4

Great Leaders Transform Mistakes into Opportunities by Richard Tyson



We are all familiar with the phrase, “to err is human.” If we’re honest with ourselves, we can all bear personal witness to the truth of this statement. That said, one of the most important leadership responsibilities is to help those we lead recognize and overcome their mistakes. Doing this, however, is more challenging than one might think. You see, it is human nature to deal with our mistakes in several dysfunctional ways:

  • We hide our errors in the hope that they will never be discovered—or perhaps that they will simply go away.
  • We blame others for our mistakes in an effort to deflect criticism from ourselves.
  • We blame circumstances, thereby excusing ourselves from responsibility for our miscues.

Each of these dysfunctional responses reflect fears that mistakes will result in reprimand, loss of status, or other discipline. According to social scientists, these fears are more pronounced in the United States than in many other countries. They note that, in Japan, for instance, children are generally socialized to avoid pride and standing out in their peer groups, whereas American children are inherently socialized to do the opposite. Americans are encouraged to be competitive and pursue high achievement. With little emphasis on comparative peer status, Japanese children are taught to greet attention to their mistakes with an attitude that such feedback provides “pearls” that help them  improve. Americans instead most often view such feedback as the unkind cuts of discipline. We find it difficult, if not impossible to perceive criticism as helpful.

If not addressed, this tendency to receive criticism in dysfunctional ways will inevitably lead to job dissatisfaction, mediocrity in work performed, and the erosion of the competency and confidence of your team.

Knowing that virtually all Americans are naturally inclined to greet our mistakes in less than productive ways, leaders are faced with the challenge of establishing a mistake-tolerant environment that will lead subordinates to become comfortable with admitting mistakes when they occur—and using them as a catalyst for change and improvement. That means we must build a high level of trust that leader responses to problems and mistakes will be unemotional and respectful.  We must establish that the worst mistake is the one that remains unidentified—and do all we can to make it safe to bring errors to the surface.

A leader who desires to establish this safe environment must send a clear message (1) that mistakes are inevitable, (2) that every mistake is a learning opportunity, (3) that perfection, while unattainable, can be approached over time as mistakes are identified and resolved, and (4) that those who are actively engaged in identifying and resolving mistakes (especially their own) are held in high esteem.

One notable leader who succeeded in creating such an environment was Alan Mulally at Ford Motor Company. As the new CEO there in 2006, he inherited an environment where leaders would not speak openly about problems for fear of being seen as weak or incompetent. To change this, he implemented a system that required weekly evaluation of performance by his direct reports. Unfortunately, in the early days of this process, all feedback was positive. Literally, no one admitted any concerns. However, one executive finally became courageous enough to share that a key project was failing. This was exactly what Mulally had hoped for. He greeted this boldness with applause and gratitude. And then, he directed the attention of the full executive team to the problem. He made it clear that it was safe to openly share challenges and concerns; indeed, that it was precisely how they would take Ford to much higher levels of performance.

Notice how different this is than creating an atmosphere where mistakes are not to be tolerated, where those who make mistakes are labeled as stupid, where perfection is implied to be the current state, and where those who admit mistakes are berated or punished.

Enlightened leaders realize that mistakes actually represent opportunities for improvement and that they should be embraced as such.  The fact is, mistakes will happen—and they should be exposed, learned from, and fixed.  And such fixes should be as permanent as possible to avoid repetitious errors.

None of us live a mistake-free life—and that’s a very good thing, because no one should be denied the incredible learning that comes from admitting our errors and overcoming them.  As leaders, we should recognize the incredibly important role we play in facilitating that learning process!

About the author 

Rich Tyson

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