Leaders and Mistakes

Another great leader who made a big mistake.
Another great leader who made a big mistake.

I’ve been reading Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made by Jim Newton. It’s an excellent biography by one of the few biographers who consistently provides a balanced view to his work.

We remember Earl Warren first of all for his contributions to the advancement of equality, particularly in the area of school desegregation. He’s also remembered for several more controversial decisions that protected the rights of the accused in criminal proceedings, but his primary claim to fame comes from his well-publicized commitment to civil rights.

What is less known is that Warren was one of the major leaders behind the internment of Japanese citizens in World War II, an act that deprived hundreds of thousands of Americans of all of their civil rights and ranks as one of the most shameful acts in American history.

From a leadership perspective, Warren is not unusual. While we all have a desire to find a leader who can satisfy our desire for the perfect hero, no leaders are perfect. Many of the people whom we consider our greatest leaders were also guilty of horrible mistakes. Lincoln wasted years of effort and thousands of lives because he had lousy talent acquisition skills and couldn’t find the right generals. FDR squandered his mandate on a court-packing scheme that damaged his effectiveness with Congress for the rest of his presidency. Nixon opened the doors to China then stupidly embroiled himself in Watergate. I’ve read hundreds of biographies of leaders and have yet to find one that could quality as mistake-free. Not even close.

The fact that leaders make mistakes is more problematic in the United States than in other countries because our belief in single-person leadership is stronger. The myth of the lone leader who can walk into town and clean up the mess like the sheriffs of frontier days is still with us. Ross Perot went a long way on that myth back in 1992, and we see the same dynamic in business every time a CEO is replaced and the new CEO is anointed a “savior” by the business press. The myth also creates the unreasonable expectations that lead to our love-hate dynamic with leaders. If they do what we think they should be doing, we’re behind them; if they screw up, we feel angry and betrayed. The essence of the leadership experience is one minute you’re a hero, the next minute you’re a bum.

Leaders make mistakes. Good and even great leaders make lots of mistakes. This is a truth that both leaders and followers must accept, for it opens the door to a long-term perspective and a fairer evaluation of a leader’s contribution. We can say that the best leaders are those who learn from their mistakes, but some leaders learn all the wrong things from their mistakes, like “I’ll never trust that SOB again,” or “that’s the last time I share information with anyone.”

So let’s say instead that the best leaders demonstrate the ability and willingness to learn the right things from their mistakes. They have the ability to self-reflect, identify where they went wrong and accept responsibility for fixing the problems created by their mistakes while working to prevent similar mistakes in the future. Most importantly, they also accept that they are human and will continue to make mistakes (hopefully different mistakes) as long as they live. The true measure of the quality of a leader lies in having a clear vision and demonstrating the fortitude to remove the obstacles in the way of achieving that vision . . . especially the obstacles created by the inevitable mistakes and character flaws of the leader.

Great leaders have one thing in common: they are never finished. They never finish striving and they are never finished works themselves. Great leaders grow and change. It is clear that Earl Warren overcame a dreadful lapse in judgment to eventually make great contributions to society, and I firmly believe that most leaders can overcome even their worst mistakes.

Except for the extremely arrogant, most leaders I’ve worked with are exceptionally hard on themselves when they make a mistake—much harder than their demanding followers are. Avoid that trap and develop a long-term perspective in your work that allows you to see a mistake for what it is: a bump in the road in the middle of a very long journey. Don’t waste time staring angrily at the bump. Figure out how you allowed the bump to slow you down, then move on.







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Bob Mendonsa

Bob Mendonsa is an experienced, engaging facilitator with over twenty years of experience delivering and designing leadership and organizational development programs at all organizational levels in a wide range of industries. Bob’s body of work also includes significant experience in team building, human resources and assignments as the top HR/OD executive at three different companies.