Permission to Fail, Part II

History has demonstrated, time and again, the high price that’s paid when someone doesn’t feel safe acknowledging their mistakes or when they feel the need to withhold critical information for fear of being criticized or punished. Nations have suffered, leaders have fallen, and institutions have collapsed, not because of the mistake that was made, but because it was covered up or not reported at all. While these examples might seem dramatic, it’s no different with small businesses where the effects are more keenly felt and the lives affected aren’t just numbers, they’re people you actually know.

In my opinion, worse still is failing to act or take initiative for fear of making a mistake in the first place. Especially if this is based on a fear of reprisals. What opportunities have been lost? What gains have been missed by not acting?

In Part I of this series, I mentioned the value of looking for the lessons that are byproducts of every mistake that’s made. Not just the financial lessons and the lessons to be learned by the person who made the mistake. Look deeper for secondary lessons, as these may be the most important of all.

What have you, as a leader, learned through the mistake of another? What have you realized about yourself? How have you become a better business leader? Have you set an example for your people by your actions in handling someone else’s mistake? Your people are watching to see how you respond. What will they learn about you?

While attending a convention, I was having breakfast with a client and reading the bio of that morning’s keynote speaker. She was the oldest daughter of an immigrant family who had graduated near the top of her law class. She was a highly successful real estate attorney despite her young age. Until she made a mistake. It was a costly legal error that caused her to lose her license to practice law and to serve prison time for fraud.

When I mentioned to my client that this was someone I’d love to hire, he seemed surprised and asked me why. “Because she’s failed and crashed—hard, learned from it, and gotten back up,” I responded. She had demonstrated her drive to succeed. If I was looking for someone who could empathize with a business owner who was struggling, she’d be the one. Not only was she not trying to hide her mistake, but she was standing on a stage talking about what she had learned so others could avoid the same fate.

The story of her fall was tragic, and I would never wish it on anyone. But it sure put into perspective the occasional ding in the fender, lost piece of equipment, or botched contract we all experience from time to time.

To think that we could put an end to all the negative feelings that usually accompany failure or making mistakes with one simple, three-word phrase is liberating.

“Don’t do that” is a simple statement that, when someone is feeling puny or beating themselves up for their error, gives a person permission—with impunity—to be wrong or to screw up. To make a mistake, learn from it, move on, and then live another day. Just like that morning’s keynote speaker had done.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling the need to go out and make a whopper of a mistake … just to see what lessons I can learn from it

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