It’s like they always say: to err is to be human. Yet, as wise as this adage may be, we often forget all too quickly that it applies to everyone — including ourselves. Slipping up, personally or professionally, can weigh heavily on the mind. Aside from concerns about being ascribed blame, we feel wounded and ashamed. As a result, many of us struggle to let bygones be bygones — instead, carrying those mistakes around with us like an invisible badge of shame.
As a leader, making a mistake can be especially difficult to wrap your head around. You may find the echo of your inner voice asking how you manage to guide others when you still make mistakes yourself. But before bending to self-doubt, consider this all-too-often well-kept secret — employees are more impacted by watching you recover from failure than by seeing you err in the first place. After all, you set the precedent. If you want those you lead to grow from failure and embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, the movement must start with you.
We are not composites of our shortcomings. In truth, we’re better defined by how we bounce back from our failures than by the mistakes we made in the first place. Instead of giving in to guilt, let’s offer ourselves grace.
Read on to discover how leaders embrace mistakes as future opportunities to thrive.
#1: Replace anxiety with reflection
Have you ever sworn you could feel the effect of failure on a physical level? When you realize you’ve dropped the ball, you may experience a plummeting sensation in the pit of your stomach, as though the floor is falling out beneath you. Best case scenario, you endure a brief window of embarrassment. Worst case scenario, you carry a weighty cloud around for the rest of the week — or maybe even longer if the mistake really sticks with you.
Even more anxiety-inducing, have you ever made several mistakes in succession? This is common, too. We often err in clusters. One mistake can become so distracting that we begin slipping up in other ways, too — losing sight of the big picture that, as leaders, we’re responsible for keeping an eye on in the first place.
Believe it or not, a famous lesson by the legendary Siddhartha Gautama Buddha can provide leaders with a new way to frame failure. This teaching doesn’t require prayer or spirituality, instead encompassing a practical philosophy that everyone can apply to their personal and professional lives.
Often referred to as The Second Arrow, the story’s purpose is easy to summarize. When something negative occurs — whether by personal error or outside circumstance — it’s as though we’ve been speared by an arrow. Undeniably, we are hurt and affected by its impact. However, if we become too preoccupied with the first arrow, we leave ourselves vulnerable to a second arrow. This subsequent hazard is a beast of our own creation — when we become too fixated on pain or failure, we debilitate our well-being and unintentionally facilitate further problems in the future.
Applicable across countless circumstances, this parable encourages an attitude of self-forgiveness. For leaders, the lesson offered by this story is that instead of catastrophizing failure, we can reflect on our mistakes with objectivity — letting go of our pain and guilt to continue moving forward.
Doing so isn’t about ascribing oneself all the blame. Rather, it’s about considering all the factors that facilitated our failure. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to honestly reflect upon your mistakes:
- What was the mistake?
- What factors led to me making this mistake?
- How was I affected by these factors? Why did these factors negatively affect my performance?
- How can the circumstances that led to this mistake be addressed and rectified?
- What can I do differently if similar circumstances arise in the future?
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#2: Consider the consequences… but be kind
In the same manner that reflecting on our missteps avoids repetition, contemplating the consequences of failure helps us evaluate how our work impacts others.
We don’t recommend doing this through the lens of self-deprecation; after all, the very nature of a mistake is that it wasn’t purposeful, so why beat yourself up over an honest error? Keep your reflection as objective as possible and avoid that second arrow. Instead, examine your failure as part of the bigger picture.
In doing so, you can gain valuable insights into not only your performance, but your role within your organization. By reflecting on mistakes from this angle, you don’t just avoid making them again; you also come to better appreciate and understand your professional role and its influence on others.
In hindsight of a mistake, you can consider the consequences by asking yourself a few questions:
- How did this error impact my organization?
- How might my mistake have impacted other employees?
- What did I learn about my performance from this mistake?
- Who else was affected by this incident? What can I do to help or apologize for the impact this may have had on others?
- What did this misstep teach me about the way that I work? What steps can I take to improve my future performance?
#3: Embrace the “uh-oh”— reclaim mistakes as learning opportunities
Once you’ve acknowledged the cause and consequences of your error, something incredible can happen — you can grow as a worker and a leader.
By analyzing your errors through a constructive lens, you can turn accidents into opportunities to honestly examine complex situations — gaining the insights necessary to curb future failures while fostering personal and professional growth.
For leaders, embracing mistakes might sound intimidating. We fear that owning our errors could compromise our authority or call our expertise into question. In the face of this fear, it’s important to remember that leaders aren’t responsible for perfection. Instead, our chief role is to motivate, organize, and influence others — garnering their professional potential by fostering growth.
#4: Find inspiration in failure— make mishaps teaching moments
Here’s another admission often omitted from the leaders’ handbook — your shortcomings humanize you, and how you embrace them reflects your character. When employees see that you’re willing to be forthright and own up to mistakes, it demonstrates that you hold yourself to the same standards and expectations — all while exercising honesty, fair judgment, and self-grace.
In addition to earning trust, transparency inspires the authentic growth of others. Your honesty and openness will model the very values you expect your employees to demonstrate — even-tempered resilience, candid self-reflection, and a willingness to learn from your own errors.
When a supervisor openly acknowledges a mistake, they model the constructive behavior they expect from their employees. When workers see their leaders as people who own and grow in the face of failure, they’re more likely to be open and honest when they err, too. Unafraid of shame or punishment, they’ll be more inclined to adopt the attitude you demonstrated — embracing even-tempered resilience, candid self-reflection, and a willingness to learn.
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#5: Uphold a culture of growth
When leaders routinely demonstrate resilience and a willingness to learn, they inspire a Culture of Failure. We know this sounds scary, but bear with us.
A Culture of Failure doesn’t discount, negate, or discourage success. Instead, it fosters it by accepting failure as a natural steppingstone towards victory.
By accepting that errors are an organic part of the learning experience, leaders communicate that professional growth is valuable to the company. Consequently, outcomes improve for supervisors and workers alike. In a Culture of Failure, employees collaborate toward success rather than compete for it. Furthermore, turnover rates tend to be lower, performances become more efficient, and the organization’s overall results improve.
Making meaning from mistakes
There’s another adage: we’re not defined by our failures but by how we react to and grow from them. This can be a particularly difficult viewpoint for leaders to assume, as their missteps can feel high stakes.
But what makes a mistake, anyway? Sure, we can look at something in hindsight and label it a failure, but at the end of the day, the only thing we can control is the road ahead. By acknowledging our mistakes, embracing them as opportunities to learn, and using them to inspire growth in others, we can reclaim what went wrong in the first place so that, in the future, our failures will work for us.
At Goodwin University, our MSOL program grows the leaders of today and tomorrow — inspiring and empowering doers and changemakers to make a meaningful difference in organizations of all shapes and sizes. Learn more about earning your Master’s of Science in Organizational Leadership today! Call 800-889-3282 or text 860-467-1511.