Today, in the age of social media, few mistakes go unnoticed, and many mistakes go viral. But what remains the same today, as in days of old, is the knowledge one can gain when learning from mistakes.

Freedom is the ability to make mistakes

Great leaders throughout the ages have recognised the importance of allowing people room to make mistakes. Gandhi famously said, ‘freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.’ And as these examples show, in the midst of hugely successful careers it is often the great leaders of the world who are the ones making many of those mistakes themselves. That is because they tend to operate ahead of the crowd in unchartered territory where both the greatest rewards and the greatest risks are to be found.

But how can turning down the The Beatles be anything other than a disaster? The trick to transforming mistakes into positive experiences is to learn the lessons they have to teach you. It is the ability to make mistakes and learn from them that gives leaders the courage to lead. Being agile is essential in business and that means taking risks and going with the flow. For example, Decca Records may have missed out on signing The Beatles but they learned quickly – later helping to earn The Beatles, and themselves, a healthy profit with EMI.

How to learn from your mistakes

Rule number one is to admit your mistakes. As soon as you start blaming other people, you move the focus from gaining experience to protecting your image. Admitting what went wrong allows the space and time to properly diagnose the situation so that you can move forward with confidence and renewed clarity. True leadership comes from knowing how to react in a crisis and turning a mistake into a worthwhile lesson, regardless of who has made the slip-up.

The challenge is, we’re often taught to feel guilty about failure and to do whatever we can to avoid mistakes. In effect, this makes us hide from the most challenging goals, reducing our capacity for success. But, if we increase our ambition, we also increase our dependency on our own ability to overcome set-backs and learn from mistakes. This, in turn, makes us more versatile and resilient; or agile. Here are the three essentials to learning from mistakes:

  • Put yourself in situations where you can make interesting mistakes
  • Have the self-confidence to admit them
  • Be courageous about making changes

Recovery as a model of growth

Now, we are not advocating that you make mistakes all the time. That would be counterproductive. Just recognise that mistakes happen and as long as you take the lessons onboard, you will exit the situation stronger rather than weaker. As one of our clients says in his ‘leadership belief’, “when things are going well, go and tell your clients. When things are going badly, run and tell your clients.” Having confidence in your ability to manage a failure as well as a success is paramount. It is so often the case that a fear of a situation is far worse than the situation itself.

The ability to recover from your mistakes in business also relies on the trust you have engendered in your staff, colleagues and clients. If you have trust, and communicate openly with clients, you will be able to keep that trust even when mistakes are made. 

As golfer Gary Player once said: ‘the harder I practice, the luckier I get.’ At Potential Squared, we give our clients the opportunity to practice making behavioural mistakes. By making mistakes in a classroom environment, and therefore a safe environment, they get to try changing the way they do and say things with minimal impact and maximum effect.