Trial and Error Leadership

effective_leader_quoteWhen I was a young recruiter, one of my favorite interview questions was “Tell me about a time when you made a mistake.” It’s a tough question to answer as a candidate. In an interview, we have been trained to present the most positive version of ourselves in an interview and hide any potential flaws. The interview question puts the candidate in a tough scenario where they want to provide a truthful, informative answer without damaging the positive impression they’ve built throughout the interview.

Of all the times I asked that question, the “mistakes” candidates shared with me never scared me away from hiring them. The answer that routinely received a red flag was “I can’t think of a time when I’ve made a mistake.” That’s preposterous. A person who is incapable of answering that interview question is either working too hard at hiding who they are, or lacks the ability to reflect and be accountable for his/her actions.

Leadership, as in life, is one giant trial and error experiment. With each mistake we make, we learn, grow, and adapt so that we (hopefully) don’t make the same mistake again.

In an ideal world, every emerging leader would be groomed for the position for years before ever stepping into the powerful role. They would receive thoughtful coaching and mentoring as well as formal training to prepare them for the daily challenges they will undoubtedly face. However, in practice, this rarely happens. Most leaders receive very little formal or informal training before taking on their first leadership position. They learn by trial and error.  

But that isn’t all bad. Taking a trial and error approach to leadership can be a strategic advantage at times. When you make decisions with a trial and error mindset, you open yourself up to taking calculated risks. Trial and error lends itself to the Fail Early, Fail Often mantra of innovation. You start by taking a leap of faith, but if it doesn’t work, you activate a parachute and move on to plan B.

Leaders with a trial and error mindset don’t relentlessly pursue a failing plan because their ego isn’t tied to the plan. Their plan is to test, watch, learn, adjust, and re-test. They don’t fall victim to sunken cost or gambler’s fallacies. They are flexible. They are agile. They listen and are open to evidence that the original plan will need to be adjusted or scrapped entirely.

But the single greatest aspect of trial and error leadership is being open to the errors themselves. Leaders who budget for errors embrace the value of mistake-driven growth. They’re likely to openly admit when they have made a mistake so everyone can internalize the lesson learned. They create a culture where openness and transparency are as valued as accountability. Team members don’t feel ashamed when they fail because, as the Thomas Edison quote goes, “They didn’t fail; they found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”

Failure isn’t the opposite of success. It’s a detour on the pathway to success.