My best successes came on the heels of failures – Barbara Corcoran
It’s often said that we learn best from our mistakes. This is particularly true in leadership. Leadership situations are unpredictable and often call for spontaneous decision-making. While each of us can draw upon wisdom gained from past experiences and emotional intelligence gained from personal growth, we may still miss the target on occasion. Reflecting on the lessons learned from these leadership fails is the best way to make sure to get it right the next time.
Most leaders understand the organizational impact gained from empowering team members to pick up a project and run with it. However, knowing when to let someone run with the ball and how far to let them go can be tricky to navigate. I remember a situation in which a team member had some pretty good ideas but they appeared too far out of the comfort zone for our organization. In fact, I remember one 20-minute conversation based on “thinking outside the box while remaining in the box.” What does that mean anyway? It turns out, he was right. It was time to push our organization a little further than it was comfortable. Rather than stifling this team member’s creativity, my role should have been to help organizational leaders understand the need to take risk and see the possibilities. I am happy to say that team member is still with the organization and has been doing great things to move it forward.
Another complicated situation is conflict between a team member and a customer. Team members want your support and customers firmly believe they are always right. Usually, neither party is all right or all wrong. In one instance, I had a team leader who had been given authority over a particular project. Exercising that authority, the team leader assigned a large penalty due to the customer’s mistake. Both parties brought the matter to me to mediate; neither felt they were out of line. After thorough review, I agreed with the customer believing the infraction did not warrant the penalty assessed. This caused significant animosity between the team leader and me, which was never fully repaired. I believe my decision was the right decision, but I could have handled the situation better. First, if there were restrictions on the team leader’s authority, I should have made that clear from the beginning of the project. Also, once conflict began, it would have been beneficial to step in earlier before the situation progressed too far (although there were some challenges in this case that made that impossible). As such, I was brought in to “clean things up” and had little opportunity to work out a better solution.
The most difficult leadership situations can involve those who lead you. My largest leadership fail falls under this description. Understanding how to address a conflict in leadership is of utmost important to leaders at all levels. In my specific situation, a project had been removed from my oversight without explanation. I had received superior reviews up to that point from within and outside the organization. I had even been promised additional projects based on my handling of the specific project. My direct supervisor could not provide explanation as to why the project was being taken from me and only offered promises of opportunities in other areas. Her responses made it clear she was being directed from someone above her, and I chose to confront that person. I made several mistakes during this confrontation – 1) I allowed my emotions to lead the confrontation; 2) I put my thoughts in writing (email) rather than meeting personally; and 3) I made insinuations that the situation was politically motivated. Each of these was a mistake, but together, they could have spelled disaster. Fortunately, this person is an amazing leader. She was able to model true leadership through a discussion that followed my poor confrontation choice. While I never received a solid explanation for the decision, I gained a significant lesson in managing people in distress and handling leadership conflict.
Zig Ziglar said, “If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost.” I would add that if you haven’t failed in leadership, you may not be leading. None of us is perfect, and fortunately, perfection is not required of leadership. Leaders who are vulnerable enough to admit their mistakes and learn from them are successful leaders.