You Could be Wrong

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you know that my first job in management came as quite a shock to me. I was a very good salesperson until one day I was pulled into the office and asked if I would be interested in jumping several levels of management to become the General Sales Manager. 

I wasn’t actually sure what the General Sales Manager did but I did know the job came with a new car, a huge office with a private bathroom and a whole lot more money. Lots and lots of money. 

So of course I said yes and the following Monday I was in charge of a large sales organization. I didn’t let the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing keep me from doing it. We were selling soda pop and I sold more than anybody. How tough could it be to make sure everyone else was selling all they could too.

To say I made a few mistakes would be a rather large understatement. The worst part was everyone but me could see the mistakes coming from a mile away. I might have been a little too proud to ask the more experienced people for help but eventually I made the sales organization more of a democracy so others could share their ideas. But I made the final call because I was the boss and that’s what bosses do. 

Shortly after I was promoted I faced the biggest decision I would ever make in my new role. There were two major convenience store chains in the city where I was working. Vendors in both of those chains paid for the best shelf space. I only had the budget to purchase “eye level”  cooler space in one of the chains. The chains appeared to be about the same to me so I very strategically picked the chain with a location closest to my house. 

We would still have shelf space in the other chain’s stores but it would be “bottom shelf. ” Customers would have to look long and hard to find our products. 

My decision looked good for a few weeks. A few weeks. Just 3 weeks after making the agreement with one convenience chain it was acquired by the chain I decided not to make an agreement with. 

The chain that did the acquiring tossed all the vendor contracts from the chain they acquired. That meant in every major convenience store in a large metropolitan area, my products were now all bottom shelf. 

I was pretty lucky that my boss didn’t think that disaster was my fault. He chalked it up to bad luck and we agreed there was no way I could have seen that coming. But to this day I suspect I could have seen it coming. I know for a fact I should have seen it coming. 

I managed to mitigate much of the damage with some new sales programs and by out hustling the competition. I also learned a ton about making decisions, making mistakes, and “fixing” poor decisions. 

But what I learned most of all is to accept the fact that I could be wrong. About almost anything. That meant that people I disagreed with could be right. About almost anything. 

Authentic Leaders must make confident decisions based on the facts they have available. They must also be open to discover new facts that become available and have the courage to change a decision based on the new information. 

Leaders who cannot accept that one of their decisions may need to be changed are very limited leaders. Leaders who refuse to accept that they could be wrong have no ability to learn from their mistakes. Leaders who believe that accepting responsibility for a poor decision is a weakness will never fully have the trust of their people. 

Leaders who do not have the trust of their people are leaders in name only. For anyone hoping to truly lead making a mistake need not be fatal, refusing to admit that mistake most often is. 

Let Them Be Wrong

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.