The Beauty of Failure: How the Best Leaders Learn from Their Mistakes

Leaders should consider the following four strategies for turning their mistakes into teachable moments.

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There are few objects as ubiquitous with office culture as the Post-it Note. Colorful, portable and easy to use, the Post-it has been the go-to tool for note-taking and office communication for decades, even with the advent of desktop and mobile note-taking services.

But the Post-it was not created on purpose. Dr. Spencer Silver, a scientist for 3M, was tasked with researching and developing stronger adhesives, but the adhesive he created was less effective than the adhesives already on the market. Nevertheless, Dr. Silver believed that while his adhesive wasn't as strong as others, it might be helpful in other ways.

For years, he attempted to find a use for his invention, hosting seminars and describing his product to anyone who would listen. But it wasn't until a colleague, Art Fry, expressed his desire for an adhesive bookmark that wouldn't damage book pages that Dr. Silver's invention found its purpose and the Post-it Note was invented.

Everyone makes mistakes. But it's what we learn and how we react to those mistakes that matter. The mistakes leaders make won't always result in happy accidents. But what they almost always can result in is real, teachable moments. These moments are passed on to staff and can highlight a leader's ability to compromise, refocus and reassess — all crucial traits for leaders of any company or team.

The Beauty of Failure

There are several takeaways from the Post-it story, but perhaps none is as urgent as this: Dr. Spencer Silver was able to fail because he allowed himself to try. That's the beauty of failure: it's often the result of trying something new or challenging for the first time. A child's banged-up knees after learning to ride a bicycle without training wheels aren't much different from a junior engineer's first failed attempt at creating a hydraulic model. And as the saying goes, if you're not failing, you're not trying.

The second takeaway from the Post-it story is one leaders hear repeatedly, and for good reason: persistence is key. Had Dr. Silver given up on his seminars and stopped talking about his invention, his colleague may have never heard about it. But because he saw potential in his failure, he and his colleague were able to create an innovative product that has endured over the decades.

Wrapped up in this message of persistence is another point: sharing your mistakes can have unexpected outcomes. Even if your mistakes happen in a vacuum, neither the solution nor the aftermath has to. That's why owning your mistakes is crucial: for effective response and adaptation.

Turning Mistakes into Teachable Moments

Leaders will make mistakes. Some of these mistakes will be minor, and some will be major. Regardless of the severity, all mistakes can provide learning opportunities if we let them. Leaders should consider the following four strategies for turning their mistakes into teachable moments.

1. Recognize and acknowledge the mistake.

Mistakes can't be turned into teachable moments if they aren't recognized and openly acknowledged. Leaders show integrity when they take ownership of their mistakes, and taking ownership early can often minimize the effects of our errors.

2. Understand the gravity of the mistake.

Not all errors are created equal. The severity of the mistake will often dictate the response. But even disastrous mistakes can be turned into teachable moments when leaders take care to treat blunders with the nuance they deserve.

3. Brainstorm solutions and field ideas.

Managers and supervisors are often best served when they field suggestions from their supervised employees. After all, no one sees their flaws as closely as the people they interact with most. When leaders make a mistake, especially a managerial one, they should reach out to their employees for feedback on how they might avoid making similar mistakes in the future. Learning from mistakes is key to turning errors in judgment into teachable moments.

4. Listen.

The mistakes we make are often made at the expense of others. A manager may come to feel uneasy about admonishing a junior employee in front of senior peers over an error that, in retrospect, wasn't so detrimental. While they might believe a private apology is all that is needed, the employee may feel differently. In such circumstances, it's essential to listen to the person who has been inconvenienced rather than handle the aftermath without feedback. What's important is not saving face; what's important is that the feelings of the inconvenienced employee are understood and validated.

It's essential to note that a leader's behavior before the mistake will often influence others' reaction to the mistakes they make. Leaders who have previously demonstrated humility and emotional intelligence are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt after making an error than those who are less socially respectful themselves.

It is always in a leader's best interest to conduct themselves in an earnest and upstanding way so that when a mistake happens, they can rely on past behaviors as a touchstone for their brand.

Re-branding Mistakes as Happy Little Accidents

Bob Ross said that "we don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents." But this saying is only true if we first acknowledge our mistakes and then strive to learn from them. Turning an error into a success takes practice. But it also takes inventiveness. Just as Bob Ross could look at a swatch of green paint on a palette and see the potential for trees, so leaders should try to imagine the potential which might arise from their mistakes beyond their initial shapes.

And while many professional mistakes have been successfully turned into excellent PR opportunities, this is not always the case. As you work to turn errors into teachable moments, remember that sincerity is the mark of purposeful leadership. Employees—and users and clients—can spot disingenuity from afar. So continue to make mistakes as you grow. But be mindful to learn from those errors and pass your findings on to the people who matter most at work—your employees and your customers.

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