Leadership After Failure

There are many other qualities of great leadership, of course. Among the most important traits are awareness, effort and thoughtfulness, as noted above. This triad obviates neglect and minimizes poor choices. Great leaders are, by definition, not neglectful or foolish.

The triad also maximizes success. All leaders–even bad ones–have some lucky breaks. Mostly, though, they experience success. All leaders also have an occasional accident and make a mistake. What then? The answer separates the effective from the ineffective leaders.

Accidents Vs. Mistakes

Accidents are typically forgiven. The group is often sympathetic after observing that the leader tried and acted within his or her domain of competence. The group (and the leader) may be disappointed, but the leader’s good-faith effort has set a positive example, and no one feels duped or abandoned. With accidents, leaders are well-served to:

1. Reflect on their misstep.

2. Openly apologize (even if the group has already expressed forgiveness).

3. Make amends (especially if someone was hurt or an important outcome wasn’t achieved), and to think about how to do things better the next time.

Mistakes are different. Forgiveness is sometimes not forthcoming. Therefore, the best leaders recover from mistakes by quickly owning them.

Laying the responsibility elsewhere, spinning the mistake as a triumph, or pretending there was actually no mistake are all defensive reactions grounded in the fear that admitting a mistake may cause the group to lose respect for the leader.

Ironically, owning mistakes–provided that such mistakes are infrequent–causes the group to feel enhanced respect for the leader. Indeed, every member of the group knows that mistakes are human, so this admission humanizes the leader. It also sets a good example for others.

Ante Up

After owning their mistake, the best leaders offer a sincere apology. Delaying this expression of regret only hardens the group’s hearts. By contrast, saying, “I’m sorry that I made this mistake,” provides an opportunity to move ahead, both interpersonally and professionally.

The best leaders understand that respect is grounded in this relationship. Without a strong interpersonal connection between a leader and his or her group, great achievements may be kept at bay.

Next, the best leaders learn. They consult with other leaders, listen carefully to feedback from the group, and hone skills that will help achieve success in similar scenarios. When the group sees that the leader has continued to work toward preventing the same mistake in the future, forgiveness is palatable.

Without excessive self-deprecation, great leaders can also return to the mistake, offer the group a narrative of what transpired and where the misstep was, and discuss what’s being done to prevent a similar mistake in the future.

Offering narratives highlights another cornerstone of great leadership. The best leaders have, of course, learned from their mistakes. However, they refrain from telling war stories about their mistake-riddled past for two reasons:

First, war stories, while dramatic and sometimes entertaining, glorify the mistake. Such glorification may mislead members of the group to believe they should intentionally make mistakes so they, too, can hold court around the campfire.

Second, if war stories become a central feature of how someone leads, they can distort the perceived frequency of mistakes. Members of the group may believe that mistakes are more commonplace than they are.

Being a great leader is not a popularity contest. Success, as defined in Table 1, is not always the action that brings the group immediate pleasure, especially when the leader is acting in the group’s long-term interests.

Mistakes, as defined in Table 1, are unpleasant for both the leader and the group. However, mistakes provide the types of leadership opportunities that separate the best from the mediocre. The process of owning, apologizing, and learning is healthy for any group. Mistakes give leaders opportunities to show how they earned their position. Indeed, great leaders continuously work to earn the title that goes with their job.

As the saying goes, “It’s not how you fall; it’s how you get up.” No mistake is a failure if you persist.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at SummerCampHandbook.com. He is the co-creator of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, a set of Internet-based-video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at chris@campspirit.com.

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  1. Staying Relevant
  2. For Juniors’ Sake
  3. Watch Out For One Another
  4. Lifelong Leaders
  5. Staff Continuum

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