Executive leaders operate at the crossroads of many pressures. Leaders navigate their businesses through the complexity of the market; they harness the insights of emotional intelligence and organizational psychology to cultivate team cultures; they embody the public face of their firms; they protect the trust of investors and stakeholders. And they’re human, which means another reality emerges at leadership’s crossroads: fumbles.
Most leaders know the stories of famous thinkers and leaders who, after mistakes or setbacks, became larger than life: Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, J.K. Rowling, etc. These narratives connect with every leader’s dreams of success and industry influence, but they also remind leaders that success exists on the other side of mistakes—if leaders are prepared.
So how should a leader lead in light of the inevitability of a fumble or mistake? How should they lead when it occurs?
First, effective leaders lean into the possibility of mistakes because they don’t fear making them.
Fear of Failing
Fear of failing is alarmingly powerful, especially for leaders. Leaders learn they’re to be confident, self-aware, visionary, and quick-thinking. Fear, though, can cripple even the most gifted leaders. It replaces confidence with the weight of inadequacy and self-doubt, arresting a leader’s creativity, passion, and energy.
Though fear of failing is understandable, success does not result from avoiding it. Leaders who lead out of fear inevitably employ strategies that produce flimsy growth goals, fear-averted work cultures, and stalled-out, risk-avoidant revenue pursuits. As one PROMARK coach shared:
“If fear of making mistakes is driving the business, decisions will be status quo and conservative, and you are setting your business and yourself up for stagnation and outdatedness.”
Fear of failing, though powerful, produces an unproductive, limiting mindset in leaders. By avoiding setbacks, leaders avoid the creative, careful risk-taking necessary for business maturation. It also leads to other vocational fallouts. For instance, leaders are likely to grow more anxious by constantly wondering when they’ll drop the ball, which inhibits progress by spending too much time anticipating every possible pitfall. A leader’s team will sense deep mistrust and doubt, leading to fractured work flows, conflict, and even turnover. And at some point, investors and board members will begin to wonder if a leadership change is necessary.
Create a Fail-Forward Strategy
Instead of avoiding mistakes, leaders should develop a growth mindset, marked by an emotional wherewithal and a plan, for when a fumble occurs. In fact, experiencing a fumble, buttressed by a cogent strategy, is the best way for leaders to develop effectiveness and resilience in the midst of mistakes. As Don Yaeger writes:
“To truly manage the fear of failure, we must exercise the muscle of failure. By experiencing failure repeatedly, we can learn to face it head-on and adapt to the consequences better than if we rarely fail.” 1
Although no leadership strategy advocates the sort of leader who regularly fails with no growth or change to show for it—and no company will permit that into perpetuity—effective leaders have a plan for when a fumble occurs. Having a fail-forward strategy means a leader can take the requisite time to consider what blind spots or dilemmas preceded a fumble, who the affected team members and stakeholders are, and how to respond with reasonableness.
Here are five ways a leader can develop a fail-forward strategy:
- “Breathe”: When asked, “What’s the first thing a leader should do when they’ve made a mistake?” numerous PROMARK coaches responded with “breathe.” It may not appear strategic, but the first thing a leader should do is exhale. When a leader recognizes they’ve made a mistake, everything from worst-case scenarios to the well-being of every employee can begin flooding their mind. A fail-forward strategy helps leaders find a suitable way to pause, consider how likely the worst-case scenarios are, then move forward without immediately reacting. Seeking trusted input from someone outside the situation—and company—can help leaders exhale and process with clarity.
- Own It: When a fumble occurs, leaders lead through it by owning what’s theirs to own. When a professional setback occurs, it’s likely some elements of trust are at risk, and a leader who focuses on a blame game encourages the same destructive possibilities as throwing kerosene on a lit match. Instead, when leaders take responsibility, a number of healthy things cascade from the leader into the company:
- They begin to repair damaged trust among involved team members.
- They cultivate work environments where mistakes are an understood and accepted part of leadership, innovation, and creativity.
- They humanize the workplace by dismantling notions that leaders are superheroes.
- They elevate a healthy standard of leadership for others in the company to aspire to.
- Apologize—Who, How & When: For some younger leaders, making apologies may feel like a weakness or “old-school” leadership tactic. But when a leader makes a mistake, “There’s no school like the old-school,” as the saying goes. Understanding the value and art of apologizing is an essential aspect of a fail-forward strategy. It’s hard for a leader to be seen as “owning it” if they move past the occurrence without any legitimate acknowledgment of it. Apologizing can be difficult, but knowing when, how, and who is key.
- When: Apologies should be made soon as a leader is aware a mistake has been made. The longer a leader waits to apologize, the more likely others’ frustrations will fester into bitterness, anger, and resentment. Waiting for the effects of a mistake to subside isn’t an option; time won’t cancel them out. Making an apology soon as possible establishes a leader is “owning it” and avoids unnecessary fallout.
- How: In-person apologizes should be considered best-case scenario. Despite the pace of business and the convenience of technology, a face-to-face apology, albeit brief, shows a team member they’re valued, better than an email can. A necessary component of an apology is physical and emotional vulnerability. Authentic apologies, marked by vulnerability, begin to rebuild trust and generate forward momentum. If an apology is viewed as inauthentic, it’s likely to compound the problems an apology is intended to alleviate. If an apology is being given to a larger group of members, a meeting may be suitable, depending on a leader’s familiarity and shared experiences with those members.
- Who: Rarely will a leader need to apologize to everyone in the company. But taking a moment to consider which stakeholders are impacted by a mistake helps a leader focus their apologies appropriately. Again, this may require some case-by-case interpretation.
- Learn Forward: Mistakes can bombard a leader’s psyche and cause them to freeze, especially if they’ve never considered the possibility of making one. Leaders who’ve acknowledged that fumbles happen are better suited to learn from and lead through them with integrity. A leader who’s blindsided by the possibility of a mistake might unnecessarily dwell on it, repeating and reciting entire sequences in their heads at the expense of their day-to-day duties. Embarrassment, anxiety, and shame quickly consume a leader who is without a strategy. But with a fail-forward strategy, leaders who’ve owned their mistakes and made apologies are positioned to gain the most as they learn and lead teams who see the value of “learning forward.”
- Don’t Go It Alone: Though mistakes are inevitable and preparing for them is essential for effective leadership, experiencing them can still be overwhelming and isolating. Leaders shouldn’t go it alone whether they’re recovering a fumble or developing strategies to “fail-forward.” Combating the isolating potential of a fumble by finding a mentor or hiring a 3rd-party coach can be the difference between a leader regressing or moving forward toward new insights and opportunities.
In the pace and pressure of business, fumbles happen. Every leader encounters them. The difference between leaders who regress or move forward emerges at the points of mindset and strategy. Leaders with the growth mindset that mistakes are part of leading and learning, and who have a strategy, develop healthier teams, cultivate transparent and innovative cultures, see less turnover, and enjoy higher revenue-creating possibilities.
“Humility is a core quality of leaders who inspire close teamwork, rapid learning and high performance in their teams,… Humble people tend to be aware of their own weaknesses, eager to improve themselves, appreciative of others’ strengths and focused on goals beyond their own self-interest.” 2
A leader who acknowledges their vulnerabilities and recovers a fumble with humility, maturity, and integrity will see it become a valued part of their experience tool kit and leadership story, rather than an unconquerable villain.
If you’ve felt the isolating effects of a leadership fumble, or you’d like to learn more about how coaching can help you develop a strategy to fail forward, contact us by filling out our contact form.
1 Yaeger, Don. “Managing the Fear of Failure.” The New York Times in Education. (Accessed on Nov. 18, 2018).
2 Sue Shellenbarger, “The Best Bosses Are Humbles Bosses,” The Wall Street Journal. Oct. 9, 2018.