Leadership After Failure

Conference workshops, camp publications, and staff training manuals are replete with inspirational advice on exactly how to get it right.

This is how to lead a group. This is how to discipline children. This is how to run stellar activity periods.

This is how to supervise. This is how to make a difference.

And well beyond the narrow confines of the camp world lie inspirational biographies, films and legends of people who are famous–not only for getting it right, but getting it right under adverse circumstances.

What’s missing is some guidance on what to do after we mess something up. Or more accurately: practical advice on how to lead after making a mistake.

If you want to learn how to get it right, then keep reading mainstream publications on youth development and leadership. If you think you might make a mistake this summer and want to prepare for recovery, read on.

I often begin a segment of staff training by asking the group, “Who thinks they’ll make a mistake this summer? Please raise your hand.”

A few brave souls raise their hands, then a few more, gingerly. If I stand there for 20 seconds, eventually everyone raises his or her hand. The last few people do a lot of checking first. This group admission–rich with social referencing–happens gradually because it’s not socially acceptable to fail. And yet we all do.

Mistakes Are Universal

How is it that a pervasive act–making mistakes–is so difficult to declare? In part, it’s because leadership after a mistake is so tough, bruised pride and all. To avoid considering those challenges, it is easier to dismiss the notion that mistakes are universal. Not me. Right.

For most staff members, it’s a relief to begin the season in agreement that:

1. No one is perfect.

2. All staff members at all levels share a willingness to learn.

3. Camp is an environment where leaders support their colleagues’ professional development.

Simply recognizing those tenets of healthy organizational culture will go a long way toward the staff’s willingness to lead effectively after making a mistake.

What exactly is a mistake? The answer isn’t as obvious as you may think.

Table 1 (below) helps to clarify some of the distinctions between, say, a poor choice and a mistake. Take the staff member who returns to camp intoxicated. If caught, he or she is likely to say, “I made a mistake.” Actually, what that person did was make a poor choice. It’s not as if that person didn’t know the rules or tried hard not to drink. In that case, drinking would truly have been a mistake. But in almost all cases, it represents a poor choice.

The distinctions in Table 1 are important because each has a different implication for the type of leadership required. Column 4 is left intentionally blank to prompt active learning. Take a moment now and write in examples from your own life, either that you’ve done or witnessed. The exercise will give the best understanding of a mistake.

The Best Leaders

Upon completing Table 1, consider what the best leaders do.

1. The best leaders are aware of their knowledge. They understand their skill set and the limitations of what they can do. By continually evaluating the demands of a situation and their ability to handle it, the best leaders usually avoid lucky breaks, mistakes and neglect. Great leaders take risks, of course, but they show restraint by not acting outside their domains of competence. The best leaders know when to consult, ask for help, and say no.

2. The best leaders put forth great effort. By exercising, getting rest, and eating healthy food, the best leaders are able to do their best almost all of the time. This helps them maximize success experiences and minimize neglect.

3. The best leaders are thoughtful. By tempering impulsive reactions and knee-jerk responses to complex situations, the best leaders avoid making a poor choice too often.

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