Decision-Making, Mistakes and Leadership

Leader mistakes happen…

— If you ain’t failin’, you ain’t tryin’

Oops!

Mistakes. Nobody likes ‘em, everybody makes ‘em. Yet it still sends a quiver up the spines of leaders everywhere, hearing “you made a mistake.” Our minds start racing, searching for pieces of memory that could reveal where we may have stretched a bit, or perhaps were a bit unsure in the decision we made.

“Crap! Now what…?”

We investigate our mistake, searching minute details in hopes of ensuring we never make that mistake again. Or any mistake, frankly. Many of us spend numerous waking hours fretting over the possibility (and reality) of making one mistake or another, incorrectly believing that error-free efforts are the minimum threshold of success for leadership.

How’s that working for you? I’ve got some suggestions that may help you be more successful — and less frustrated — in your leadership decision-making. First, a newsflash: you will make mistakes. Get over it. Mistakes are not inherently bad; our reactions to mistakes are much more telling than the mistake itself.

So, here we go… The 3 Principles for Avoiding Death through Mistakes:

Make more mistakes. You heard me right — make more mistakes. Look, you didn’t know how to ride a bike when you started, did you? You didn’t know how to play golf well when you started, did you? Even your job… you couldn’t do that when you first started, could you? The answer to all of these is NO! You needed practice. Practice makes perfect. Well, technically, perfect practice makes perfect, but this ain’t Carnegie Hall.

I used to work for General Lawrence Bose. He was fond of telling me, “Shirt (don’t ask), if 25% of your decisions aren’t wrong, you simply aren’t making enough decisions.” You can argue the percentage if you like, but the concept is spot on. Our job in leadership is making decisions that other, really smart people cannot make. In all likelihood, we’re making many of those decisions with incomplete information. It stands to reason that some of those decisions will be wrong. Big freaking deal. Make ‘em, and move on.

So now you’re making more decisions. Consequently, you’re making more mistakes. Hopefully none that have burned the building down or something similar. But the folks who work with you and for you aren’t blind; they can see a mistake when made. What do you do? How do you hide these newfound results of prolific decision-making from subordinates? Well, you don’t. You apologize.

Leaders apologize...
Leaders apologize…

Say what?? What the hell, Kevin!? First, you tell me to make more decisions, and I do. Next, you tell me I’ll make more mistakes, and I do. Now, I have to apologize for them?

Well, in a word… Yes.sorry

And I don’t mean screw around with one of those qualified apologies either. None of that “well, had I only known…” or “if Susan would just have told me she was going to….” None of that crap. No, apologies are incredibly simple, and to be valuable you simply must do them right. So what does “do them right” mean? Here, I’ll give you all the example you’ll ever need:

“I screwed up, I’m sorry.”

That’s it. Make the apology, then shut up. Anything you say around that apology will not act in your favor. Don’t complicate this.

Finally, and this is key, it’s seldom the actual mistake we make that gets us into trouble. It’s the mistake we make right after that mistake that puts us in a bind. When we make a mistake, the first thing that should cross our mind is “how do I fix/correct this mistake, now?”

Instead, we like to see if there is a way that we can salvage our decision to make it somewhat correct. We “double down” so to speak, hoping that perhaps an increase in effort or tweaking a process or perhaps pressing hard on employee or two will drive a successful result to what we already recognize is a mistake.

We ignore a valuable employee, and she quits. Our behavior (mistake) caused that, and now we go around explaining to others why she really wasn’t that good after all (second mistake). Maybe we decided to upgrade some software; upon completion, we quickly discover that the upgrade is not compatible with our process. Instead of cutting our losses, we instead try to “make it work,” causing more breakage and frustration, and leaving bodies in the wake (second mistake).

When you make a mistake, fix it. Then move on.

Pretty easy stuff when you think about it. Make decisions — that’s what you’re paid to do. You’ll be making many decisions without full information, so it stands to reason you’ll make a mistake or two (or three or 20). Apologize, fix the mistake, and get on with life.

Be Brazen.

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