28 July 2009 • 7:00 am


Everyone makes mistakes – we often say that ‘to err is human, to forgive divine.’ And despite occasional assertions to the contrary, our leaders are in fact human. So our leaders have made mistakes, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The consequences of our leaders’ mistakes are usually greater than the mistakes of those led; through their decisions and actions, leaders cause many others to do things. This is the definition of leadership. In meritocracies, individuals rise to leadership roles because they are viewed as capable and skillful, and are therefore expected to make good decisions for the organizations they lead. But we also say that ‘mistakes will happen.’

About a week ago, U.S. President Barack Obama made a comment at a press conference (about the racially-charged arrest of a noted college professor) that exploded into a firestorm of popular and media criticism. In an unscheduled press appearance a few days later, he somewhat clumsily acknowledged his error, and has since arranged to sit down for a beer with the professor and police officer involved. His admission was kind of a refreshing moment. In his remarks, Obama said that he hoped the episode would become a ‘teachable moment,’ presumably on the topic of race at the center of the incident. Perhaps it can be a teachable moment here, as well.

We properly hold our leaders to a higher standard when it comes to their errors; we want errors to happen infrequently, we want leaders to be motivated to avoid errors, we want errors to be quickly rectified. We want confidence that our leaders’ directions will lead to good outcomes for ourselves. Leaders with too many errors don’t always get to keep their jobs, especially when financial performance and stock price reflect the consequences of those errors.

Leaders face a dilemma when they err – to avoid the appearance of fallibility so as to sustain a perception of error-free performance, or to acknowledge their error and risk losing the support and trust of those they lead. All too often, leaders find it more attractive to try to be seen as error-free.

Many of the organizations I’ve worked with have become dysfunctional over time because of this approach to error. Their leaders are willing (sometimes even relieved) to unburden themselves of their misdeeds behind closed doors, but are simply unable to do so in a public setting. The members of these organizations are aware of the mistakes, but fear retribution from raising any public discussion of the errors. Thus, leaders and the led enable each other to sustain a fictional parallel universe in which everything is (and will continue to be) hunky-dory. It is unsurprising when these leaders finally do go away, and only a short time before a new parallel universe is constructed around the next regime.

But other organizations have a healthier culture in which errors are expected and handled as part of normal routine. Leaders freely admit their mistakes and are open to criticism. Willingness to quickly identify problems and to focus on corrective action rather than blame means that the impact of errors is lessened. Contrary to intuition, employees trust and are loyal to their fallible leaders more than those who attempt to appear infallible.

Strategy is about setting a direction for an uncertain future. Errors will be made. Hypotheses will be more quickly proven or disproven when leaders expect to be wrong, and course corrections can easily be made. But how often have you heard your leader say, “I made a mistake, and I was wrong. Let’s move on.” ? Have there been teachable moments in your organization? Please share your comments below.

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