Lean Into Your Mistakes

Every human being (including every leader) is a work in progress, on a developmental journey, moving away from the person they have been, and moving towards the person they are becoming. Whether you’re engaged in a formal coaching process or not, you are likely to have development goals as part of your annual objectives, intended to advance you on this journey. Even if you don’t have formal development goals, you’re probably aware of ways in which you can be more effective as a leader.


For example, you may want to…

  • do a better job of including others and building consensus on decisions
  • be more thoughtful and rigorous about plans before implementing them
  • be more articulate and persuasive at advocating for your point of view on issues and decisions


Along with these behavior change goals, it’s likely that you want important co-workers to perceive and engage with you differently. You may want…

  • your boss to see you as a better consensus-builder
  • your clients to see the value of including you in their planning
  • your reports to believe you care about their careers


As you work to develop yourself and have others see you differently, you may not be prepared for what a bumpy ride it can be. You hit a stressful day, face a crisis, and all of a sudden you realize that you’ve made a unilateral decision instead of soliciting the input of key stakeholders. When you make a mistake like this, you may feel like kicking yourself. “Why did I do that again?”


But here’s a different way to look at these leadership mistakes. They’re …

  • signs that important things are changing in you
  • laboratories for tweaking your development approach
  • opportunities to shift how others perceive you


Here, I want to focus on the last point. How can a mistake be an opportunity to shift how others perceive you? First, you need to understand that, while you are journeying towards change, other people are remaining stuck in old perceptions of you. They may resist seeing you differently, and interpret your new behaviors through their old lenses. They may even fear and suspect the implications of your new behaviors, because it creates uncertainty for them.


If you want to successfully grow as a leader, you need to help people see you differently, and specifically you need to help them understand your mistakes as steps on your journey. Though you may be tempted to withdraw and lick your wounds after a leadership mistake, what can you do instead?

  • Understand that others’ perception of your behavior and motives is as important to your impact as your actual behavior and motives
  • Don’t make assumptions about others’ perceptions or judgments of you, until you ask them.
  • Reach out to the person you have slipped with, or whose perception you are concerned about. Talk with them about how you’ve been trying to change, what you believe caused you to slip, and what plan to do differently. Ask for their help.


And, before you even make a mistake, set the stage for your stakeholders to see you differently.

  • Discuss your development goals with them.
  • Ask them to give you ongoing feedback when they see you slipping – or when they see you effectively demonstrating your target behaviors.
  • Check in with them regularly about what they’re seeing and what else you could do to improve your leadership in relation to them.


If you try some of these actions, I predict you will be surprised to see the transformation in how others see your leadership.

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