Every business book that you pick up will give you some version of “mistakes are good; encourage them.” An executive client of mine at a consumer products company put it this way when addressing his senior team: “Let’s proactively recognize people who have taken a risk and failed.” That’s the right idea, and it’s very easy to say and very easy to agree with (if you’ve done your required business reading). His audience of execs nodded their heads in unified agreement, but I could tell it was more from the force of politics than personal conviction.
It’s a very different thing for the leader to say, “Watch me! See how I screwed the pooch on that one? Here’s what I learned from my mistake.” Unthinkable to many managers, but that, however, is precisely what the Extreme Leader would do, because she understands that a personal demonstration goes infinitely further than a pretty-sounding platitude.
Many people—most, in fact—in positional authority are afraid that if they share their fears and mistakes publicly, others will see them as incompetent. (Competence is an important part of the game, certainly. Let’s agree right now that if you’re incompetent you should just get out of the way). But there is a difference between mistakes of incompetence and mistakes associated with boldness, innovation or experimentation. How bold and public are you willing to be with your own valuable screw-ups? In other words, how willing are you to let us learn from your mistakes?