by Susan Cramm

How to Learn from Your Leadership Mistakes

May 30, 20075 mins

There’s a storm buffeting a midsize manufacturing operation that is having difficulty fulfilling orders in a timely manner. This storm was already swirling around the company when I first spoke to its CIO. At the time, Roger was sitting on the sidelines and watching the business attempt to mitigate the damage. He had predicted the storm a few years ago but his words fell on deaf ears.

Roger felt justified in assuming an “I told you so” stance as the storm hit the European operations, taking perverse pleasure in seeing transpire what he knew would happen all along. Then, due to changes in the organizational pressure system, the wind shifted and IT felt the brunt of the storm. Despite leaking levies on the business side (including ignorance about the ERP system and turnover of key staff), IT occupied the lowlands. Roger found himself bailing water.

At one time or another, everyone makes mistakes. Whether the mistakes are temporary setbacks or career killers depends on a leader’s attitude and approach. Every great leader I know will freely admit to making mistakes and be able to identify what he learned from each one. Most average leaders lack both the confidence to admit mistakes and the introspection and awareness to identify what they should have done differently.

It’s easy to assign blame externally when culpability is shared and the actions and shortcomings of others are easier to identify and analyze than our own. This was certainly the case with Roger. However, leaders also have to believe in their abilities to lead others, so admitting fault fuels uncertainty about one’s own competence. Many find it too hard to go to such a vulnerable place. Roger eventually accepted his share of responsibility for the storm raging around the business. In doing so, he learned three lessons that bear repeating.

Admit accountability. Roger now realizes that personal power—defined as the belief that one’s own actions can make a difference—is enhanced by saying, “It’s my fault.” If you truly believe that you share some of the blame, then you can identify what to do differently going forward. Without accountability, you run into a mental cul-de-sac, where possible actions to remediate the situation raise uncomfortable questions because surely those actions would have made a difference earlier on. Not only should leaders freely admit their wrongdoings, but they should do so as early as possible to contain the damage, retain credibility and work out next steps in a more tolerant climate. Roger stopped raising red flags because he met with resistance; instead, he should have kept to his principles and changed his tactics.

Step up. A few weeks ago, Roger admitted to me that “No one is providing any leadership in this situation.” He didn’t understand that once you admit accountability, the natural and essential follow-on act is to assume a leadership role in fixing the situation. Failure to do so puts a death nail in careers because it confirms to others that, while the leader may understand what went wrong, she or he doesn’t possess the capabilities to make things better.

Years ago, as a CIO, I got a wake-up call that one of the business functions was extremely dissatisfied with the service from my organization. I accepted perception as reality and asked the function head to assign the most vocal critic to work with me in improving the situation. Because I treated this as one of my personal priorities, we won back the hearts and minds of our business partners and implemented governance mechanisms that are now common practice in most organizations today.

Leverage events. The good thing about bad news is that everyone involved is highly motivated to change. Roger is in a wonderful position to implement changes that are way overdue—specifically, a refinement of the order fulfillment process supported by changes in technology and systems ownership. His business counterparts aren’t buying the changes as of yet, so he is working with the plant managers to initiate some proof of concepts to further bolster his case.

One cautionary note: Make sure that the changes you are proposing relate to the issues at hand. For instance, it is helpful to get the counsel of others to help you choose your battles when planning your remediation. Roger was tempted to throw some budgeting changes into the mix until he was counseled that, by doing so, he was at risk of losing support because he was asking for too much.

Organizations can weather the occasional storm and expect that, in the process of making mistakes, their leaders will learn from experience. Many executives have used setbacks to improve their relationships, credibility and, ultimately, the performance of their organizations. The only bad mistake is one that is made repeatedly, without accountability. The rest are painful, often messy, but rarely fatal.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm in San Clemente, Calif. You can e-mail feedback to