I watched a colleague make a mistake the other day. I knew it was a mistake right away but he doesn’t know it was a mistake yet. It’s not a big mistake, it’s not going to be a hugely expensive mistake and though it may be a bit of a hassle, it can be fixed.
My instincts as a person told me to “help” him by pointing out why it was a mistake. My instincts as a leader said to let him be wrong. Admittedly the two instincts have caused a bit of an internal battle for me but I’m going to take the long-term view and let him be wrong. I’ll find out more about his leadership ability by letting him be wrong than I could have ever found out by “saving” him from making the mistake.
I’ll learn how long it takes him to discover the mistake and I’ll see how long it takes him to correct it. I’ll know how willing he is to admit the mistake and whether or not he is willing to ask for help. I’ll see how he fixes it and whether or not he can think “out of the box” and come up with an innovative solution or just put “it” back to where it was.
If the mistake turns out to cause more problems than I anticipated I can always get myself more involved and (hopefully) help solve it quickly. There is some small risk but the potential “reward” is well worth it.
A far bigger mistake would be to never let people make a mistake of their own.
You can learn a lot about leadership by reading books. You can learn a lot about leadership by watching how other leaders lead. You can learn a lot about leadership from a good coach or mentor but the only way to truly learn how to lead is by leading.
Leaders will make mistakes and the only way to remain a leader is to also know how to fix them.
If you’re a leader hoping to grow future leaders then let them try out their leadership wings and understand that trying out those wings includes letting them crash now and then. You don’t need to let them crash hard and from a high distance, but let them crash just the same.
If you see a big, expensive, and hard to fix mistake coming then by all means figure out a way to inject yourself into the decision making to avoid the mistake. Try NOT to just take it away from your future leader and embarrass them in the process. Coach them to another decision that allows them to save face and feel as if they were a part of the decision making process.
If it’s not an expensive and hugely time consuming mistake then let them fall. Be there to help them up and offer any insights requested or needed. If they learn from their mistake and fix it quickly, you may actually have a future leader on your team.
10 thoughts on “Let Them Be Wrong”
Great post Steve! I relate to your struggle as you navigate the tension between both instincts. And deeply admire your choice.
Thanks, time will tell if my choice was a good one…. perhaps I’ll learn the mistake was mine 😀
You are right. Sometimes, we learn best through our mistakes.
Great post. Awesome way to build ownership and leadership.
Thanks Jim, mistakes happen, we might as well try to profit from them!
Very interesting struggle for youself, thanks Steve for sharing. You cannot decide to make a mistake yourself, but you can let somebody have one, that is a very fine leadership-strategy. Mistakes, coincidences, ideas, serendipity, disruptions, etc., I call them natural innovators, without them the world would look totally different, perhaps 80% of all changes are caused by these. The point is that you cannot plan them or avoid them, so use them.
Thanks for your comment. I agree, using mistakes to learn is an effective leadership strategy. I wouldn’t let someone make a big mistake if I could help avoid it but using smaller ones can work!
Very true philosophy. I guess we are talking about “practical coaching” or the “pragmatic coach”.
Yep, I’d say “practical” coaching would be a good description.