The Art of Leadership - Dealing with Mistakes & Setbacks

Albert Einstein once said that anyone who says they have never made a mistake has never tried anything new. No-one in this world is perfect – mistakes are an inevitable fact of life and a daily hazard of leadership. Mistakes can be embarrassing, costly, even tragic – but the best leaders understand that they are also opportunities. Jack Welch argues that you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. So what is there to be afraid of?

The 17 leaders from the worlds of sport, business and the military we spoke to for our book, What Do Leaders Really Do?, all accepted – even embraced – the view that risk was an everyday part of their organisation. To these leaders, mistakes are an occupational hazard. It followed, then, that their behaviour towards mistakes in others, and their reaction to their own mistakes, was seen as a key element of good leadership behaviour. Gail Rebuck, chief executive of Random House, made the point that during her early career her bosses had been ‘very indulgent’ when she made a mistake and took the view that you learn from it, stop beating yourself up and move on. ‘That is such a valuable lesson, it really is,’ she told us.

Many of the leaders felt strongly that it was important to create an atmosphere in their organisation where people felt able to admit to their mistakes. This is partly because they need to know when things go wrong so they can be corrected before they get out of hand, and partly because they see mistakes as an inevitable and vital part of success. In common with politics, the business world is often too quick to condemn people for a wrong decision - which only serves to destroy an organisation’s ability to innovate.

The leaders also felt that ultimately, a mistake within their organisation was the leader’s responsibility – and none were afraid to shoulder the blame. Good leaders believe that in the best organisations, responsibility moves upwards and the blame culture is all but extinct. In fact, Greg Dyke, the former director-general of the BBC, felt that admitting to a mistake quickly and honestly can reap dividends within and outside of an organisation. He cited as an example a new electronic system for expenses that he introduced while at the BBC, which proved to be a disaster. ‘It clearly wasn’t working so I sent out an email to everyone saying, I’m sorry, we got it wrong. We’ll start again,’ he said. ‘Management generally have a terrible habit of failing to admit when they’ve made a mistake. We all mess up. If you admit it, everyone likes you.’

There is no doubt though that mistakes – particularly painful public mistakes – are a stern test of a leader’s ability. We had a long discussion with Charles Dunstone, chief executive of the Carphone Warehouse, about the intense media coverage his company weathered during the difficult launch of its Talk Talk broadband service. The service failed to keep up with customer demand and Dunstone took the decision to be honest with journalists about difficulties with the service. He said that the company has since had a lengthy debate about whether that was the right thing to do, since the result was ‘a kicking’ from the media. Dunstone felt that many of Talk Talk’s competitors were having similar difficulties, but were keeping quiet about them while Carphone Warehouse had all the negative attention. ‘It’s impossible to know with hindsight whether we were right to be so honest and open,’ he said. ‘It was certainly the right approach internally and with our customers and they have to be your priority. But it did mean that we were the media’s whipping boy.’

An overarching lesson we learned during our research is that business leaders can learn extraordinarily valuable lessons from leadership techniques and training in other disciplines, particularly sport and the military. Major General Patrick Cordingley, who led the Desert Rats during the first Gulf war, made the point that analysis of failures during training exercises is a ‘luxury’ in the military that is not necessarily available elsewhere. ‘Our commanders were more interested in our failures than in our successes, because they felt that everyone learnt something from an error,’ he said. ‘There is a sporting chance that you will learn a lot more from making a mistake than you will from getting it right, provided someone points it out to you in a friendly manner and takes you through what went wrong.’

Generally, good leaders will provide careful and constructive feedback to make sure that the likelihood of the same mistake happening again is minimal – for while the leaders we spoke to were willing to forgive innocent or occasional mistakes, recurring and similar mistakes were seen in a much less favourable light. Constructive and empathetic delivery of feedback, though, is a skill that has to be learned if it does not come naturally. Sir Clive Woodward, coach of the England rugby team that won the World Cup in 2003, told us that players received detailed feedback on their performance after every game, whether they won or lost. ‘People often see feedback as negative, it’s not,’ he said. ‘Feedback can be incredibly positive.’

The most important lesson, though, is that successes should be analysed as thoroughly as failures. The leaders that have adopted this approach within their own organisation felt that people were more willing to talk openly about mistakes in the context of success, but it was also felt that only analysing mistakes could damage the morale of an organisation.

Above all, though, it is vital to analyse successes because, hopefully, it is the successes an organisation wants to replicate, not the failures. Sir Clive Woodward argues that businesses often spend a lot of time looking at why something has failed but if they complete a successful deal or gain a new client, everyone simply heads off to the pub to celebrate. But unless you know exactly why you succeeded, how can you hope to repeat it in the future?

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