Leadership After Failure

By Chris Thurber

Conference workshops, camp publications, and staff training manuals are replete with inspirational advice on exactly how to get it right.

This is how to lead a group. This is how to discipline children. This is how to run stellar activity periods.

This is how to supervise. This is how to make a difference.

And well beyond the narrow confines of the camp world lie inspirational biographies, films and legends of people who are famous--not only for getting it right, but getting it right under adverse circumstances.

What’s missing is some guidance on what to do after we mess something up. Or more accurately: practical advice on how to lead after making a mistake.

If you want to learn how to get it right, then keep reading mainstream publications on youth development and leadership. If you think you might make a mistake this summer and want to prepare for recovery, read on.

I often begin a segment of staff training by asking the group, “Who thinks they’ll make a mistake this summer? Please raise your hand.”

A few brave souls raise their hands, then a few more, gingerly. If I stand there for 20 seconds, eventually everyone raises his or her hand. The last few people do a lot of checking first. This group admission--rich with social referencing--happens gradually because it’s not socially acceptable to fail. And yet we all do.

Mistakes Are Universal
How is it that a pervasive act--making mistakes--is so difficult to declare? In part, it’s because leadership after a mistake is so tough, bruised pride and all. To avoid considering those challenges, it is easier to dismiss the notion that mistakes are universal. Not me. Right.

For most staff members, it’s a relief to begin the season in agreement that:

1. No one is perfect.
2. All staff members at all levels share a willingness to learn.
3. Camp is an environment where leaders support their colleagues’ professional development.

Simply recognizing those tenets of healthy organizational culture will go a long way toward the staff’s willingness to lead effectively after making a mistake.

What exactly is a mistake? The answer isn’t as obvious as you may think.

Table 1 (below) helps to clarify some of the distinctions between, say, a poor choice and a mistake. Take the staff member who returns to camp intoxicated. If caught, he or she is likely to say, “I made a mistake.” Actually, what that person did was make a poor choice. It’s not as if that person didn’t know the rules or tried hard not to drink. In that case, drinking would truly have been a mistake. But in almost all cases, it represents a poor choice.

The distinctions in Table 1 are important because each has a different implication for the type of leadership required. Column 4 is left intentionally blank to prompt active learning. Take a moment now and write in examples from your own life, either that you’ve done or witnessed. The exercise will give the best understanding of a mistake.

The Best Leaders
Upon completing Table 1, consider what the best leaders do.

1. The best leaders are aware of their knowledge. They understand their skill set and the limitations of what they can do. By continually evaluating the demands of a situation and their ability to handle it, the best leaders usually avoid lucky breaks, mistakes and neglect. Great leaders take risks, of course, but they show restraint by not acting outside their domains of competence. The best leaders know when to consult, ask for help, and say no.

2. The best leaders put forth great effort. By exercising, getting rest, and eating healthy food, the best leaders are able to do their best almost all of the time. This helps them maximize success experiences and minimize neglect.

3. The best leaders are thoughtful. By tempering impulsive reactions and knee-jerk responses to complex situations, the best leaders avoid making a poor choice too often.

There are many other qualities of great leadership, of course. Among the most important traits are awareness, effort and thoughtfulness, as noted above. This triad obviates neglect and minimizes poor choices. Great leaders are, by definition, not neglectful or foolish.

The triad also maximizes success. All leaders--even bad ones--have some lucky breaks. Mostly, though, they experience success. All leaders also have an occasional accident and make a mistake. What then? The answer separates the effective from the ineffective leaders.

Accidents Vs. Mistakes
Accidents are typically forgiven. The group is often sympathetic after observing that the leader tried and acted within his or her domain of competence. The group (and the leader) may be disappointed, but the leader’s good-faith effort has set a positive example, and no one feels duped or abandoned. With accidents, leaders are well-served to:

1. Reflect on their misstep.
2. Openly apologize (even if the group has already expressed forgiveness).
3. Make amends (especially if someone was hurt or an important outcome wasn’t achieved), and to think about how to do things better the next time.

Mistakes are different. Forgiveness is sometimes not forthcoming. Therefore, the best leaders recover from mistakes by quickly owning them.

Laying the responsibility elsewhere, spinning the mistake as a triumph, or pretending there was actually no mistake are all defensive reactions grounded in the fear that admitting a mistake may cause the group to lose respect for the leader.

Ironically, owning mistakes--provided that such mistakes are infrequent--causes the group to feel enhanced respect for the leader. Indeed, every member of the group knows that mistakes are human, so this admission humanizes the leader. It also sets a good example for others.

Ante Up
After owning their mistake, the best leaders offer a sincere apology. Delaying this expression of regret only hardens the group’s hearts. By contrast, saying, “I’m sorry that I made this mistake,” provides an opportunity to move ahead, both interpersonally and professionally.

The best leaders understand that respect is grounded in this relationship. Without a strong interpersonal connection between a leader and his or her group, great achievements may be kept at bay.

Next, the best leaders learn. They consult with other leaders, listen carefully to feedback from the group, and hone skills that will help achieve success in similar scenarios. When the group sees that the leader has continued to work toward preventing the same mistake in the future, forgiveness is palatable.

Without excessive self-deprecation, great leaders can also return to the mistake, offer the group a narrative of what transpired and where the misstep was, and discuss what’s being done to prevent a similar mistake in the future.

Offering narratives highlights another cornerstone of great leadership. The best leaders have, of course, learned from their mistakes. However, they refrain from telling war stories about their mistake-riddled past for two reasons:

First, war stories, while dramatic and sometimes entertaining, glorify the mistake. Such glorification may mislead members of the group to believe they should intentionally make mistakes so they, too, can hold court around the campfire.

Second, if war stories become a central feature of how someone leads, they can distort the perceived frequency of mistakes. Members of the group may believe that mistakes are more commonplace than they are.

Being a great leader is not a popularity contest. Success, as defined in Table 1, is not always the action that brings the group immediate pleasure, especially when the leader is acting in the group’s long-term interests.

Mistakes, as defined in Table 1, are unpleasant for both the leader and the group. However, mistakes provide the types of leadership opportunities that separate the best from the mediocre. The process of owning, apologizing, and learning is healthy for any group. Mistakes give leaders opportunities to show how they earned their position. Indeed, great leaders continuously work to earn the title that goes with their job.

As the saying goes, “It’s not how you fall; it’s how you get up.” No mistake is a failure if you persist.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at SummerCampHandbook.com. He is the co-creator of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, a set of Internet-based-video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at chris@campspirit.com.