Learning from mistakes is harder in a crisis

Kate Cooper urges decision makers, ‘lead us not into something worse’

Mistakes provide critical experience. Many managers and leaders learn their craft by getting things wrong. They review, revise, redo. Much of the time, their second attempt is better than their first. Poor leadership is not always the consequence of Machiavellianism, narcissism or hubris. It might just as easily be the product of temporary incompetence. The road to hell is paved with the best leadership intentions.

Crises naturally deliver more mistakes than normal times. Leaders are in survival mode, learning to manage in an unknown situation, much of the time from trial and error. Mistakes are inevitable. Some are repeated daily, in every type of organization, all over the world.

The first classic leadership mistake is failing to know oneself. Many will make mistakes based on a false understanding of themselves. They might believe themselves to be ‘good’ in a crisis, decisive or – even worse – a ‘strong leader’. This misconception arrives because they have spent too little time exploring their motivations, uncovering their values and asking other people what they think of them. Even if they have counselled the views of others, the more senior one is, the more filtered that feedback will be. A lack of self-awareness causes severe problems. Someone that holds an inordinately positive image of themselves will champion one type of behaviour, yet act quite differently. This mismatch leads to inauthenticity and destroys trust.

A second timeless mistake is holding undue faith in their original vision. Visions are useful guides, but they are not blueprints from which people or organizations should be prohibited from deviating. Even in normal times, the future is uncertain. In crises, the situation is infinitely more fluid. Leaders must adapt. Cling too tightly to the original plan and failure is almost assured.

A third typical mistake is the lionization of hard work over results. The host of TV show The Apprentice in the UK, Lord Sugar, got almost everything wrong about management, but he was right about one thing. “A gerbil works hard,” he once said: “it runs around all day on a wheel and gets nowhere.” Too many leaders believe that if you work tirelessly, your rewards will be great. Yet working hard on the wrong things is worse than not working at all. It merely causes confusion and disruption in the business for no benefit. Too often, leaders are not rewarded for what they’ve achieved, but what they say they’re going to achieve. Bonuses are paid too early, rewarding aspiration and vision. But good results come from the right choices, not necessarily the most work, or the grandest plans. One great decision trumps 100 days of effort, if that effort is deployed in the wrong areas.

The late great Peter Drucker spoke about the value of relationships in business. Leadership can be a lonely pursuit. Isolation from others makes mistakes more likely. And – more crucially – makes learning from those mistakes less likely. Economist John Maynard Keynes argued that flexibility is a sign of strength, not weakness. “When facts change, I change my mind,” he said. Being aware that power is fluid, not a constant, will help leaders iterate and adapt. Working with others will help leaders change their view as the facts change. Seeking the expertise of those on the frontline will help leaders redirect their efforts into the right areas.

Achievement comes from collegiate working, not solo endeavour. Mistakes are part of leadership. The key is to let others help us correct them, learn from them, and let the best intentions translate into the best results.

––– Kate Cooper is head of research, policy and standards at the Institute of Leadership & Management

––– A version of this article first appeared on Forbes.com