The Problem with Mistake-Free Leadership

mistakesNew leaders who are overwhelmed by their new responsibilities and fear the embarrassment of failure tend not to pursue success. Rather, they spend their first year just trying not to make a mistake. New leaders spend a considerable amount of time gathering data, seeking out historical information, checking with subject matter experts, and inevitably getting stuck in analysis paralysis mode out of fear.

No one wants to make a mistake. Mistakes don’t feel good. But more importantly, we don’t want our mistakes to define us. So, to protect ourselves from any possible embarrassment we try to create mistake-free zones.

There’s no such thing as a perfect record in leadership. Leaders are not responsible for always being right. They’re responsible for defining a growth strategy, innovating, and taking calculated risks. The reality is mistakes are just risks that were calculated incorrectly. If you’re not taking risks, then you’re not moving forward. I’ve never heard of a leader whose goal was to remain dormant.

Ironically, mistake-free leadership is a huge mistake.

As Edwin Catmull (President of Pixar Animation Studies) says in his book Creativity, Inc, “Zero dumb ideas is the wrong concept. Leaders must make it safe for people to operate in the messy middle.”

Leaders who fear making a mistake create a stagnant culture. When a leader is afraid of making mistakes, that fear and anxiety will flow down to the individual contributors. Team members will slowly offer fewer and fewer ideas because they know the leader will never consider them. Feeling silenced and terrified of making a mistake of their own, the top talent will leave the organization and find a new employer who appreciates and celebrates their creativity. The only employees left will be those who “quit and stay.” Those employees keep a low profile and do the bare minimum to stay employed, but will never take risks for big rewards.

It’s important to remember that mistakes can accidentally create brilliant results. Without mistakes, we would never have Post-it notes, microwaves, matches, Penicillin, fried ravioli, or pacemakers.

There is no such thing as mistake-free leadership. The most successful leaders readily admit their mistakes, learn from them, and share the mistakes with others to improve the collective wisdom of the organization. They are transparent, and through their reflection and openness, they help everyone make better decisions. Operating in the messy middle takes courage and strength. Never be too proud to recognize your mistakes and turn them into valuable learning lessons that will serve as stepping stones towards your next success.