Leadership 2: Talking about mistakes

Speak no evil…

I’m going to keep talking about this conference that the King’s Fund hosted last month, because it was a genuine light-bulb moment.  Usually, I go to conferences about women in leadership and I hear about successes; the smooth path and straight career trajectory.  They almost never talk about the stumbles and falls; the days when they thought about giving up.  I’ve never found these talks inspirational – I’ve always found them depressing.  I’m not on this straight path through management; I don’t know what I’m doing in 1 year/5 years/10 years… I usually come away thinking that there is such an enormous gap between me and them that I might as well not bother.

So the King’s Fund was a revelation.  A group of powerful, successful women talking about their careers… and what had gone wrong.  I can relate to this: I’m usually quite aware of what I’m getting wrong.  Often, I’m told to build on the positives and learn from my mistakes.  That sounds encouraging; as though there’s hope and potential for development and growth (and all those other buzz words I come across)

We all make mistakes…

It sounds good: that’s often not what’s replicated in the talks and speeches that “successful” people give.  It makes it harder to learn from mistakes, and to grow, and to develop, if the people held up as leaders don’t talk about their mistakes.  I’m sure that they’ve made mistakes, and learnt from them, but for some reason it isn’t seen as acceptable to talk about them.  Taking an outside perspective, it’s a really interesting dichotomy: where the internal must accept mistakes and learn from them to be a leader, but the external persona isn’t supposed to reveal this.  From the inside, it’s profoundly confusing and limiting.  Yes, I’m beginning to realise this, but reflecting on my experiences and how they relate to my professional development is time-consuming and draining.  I don’t always have time for this: why does it have to be so covert??

Which is why the King’s Fund was so refreshing: it was an open and frank discussion of differences between individuals who happened to be women, and who were prepared to share what they’d learnt.  And inevitably, that meant learning from the mistakes.

It’s what happens next that really matters

I almost saw this as an isolated event.  Maybe, even, as a “women’s” way of doing leadership (the supportive, nurturing model.  Apparently).

Except, that last week, we had a teaching session from a male, surgical consultant I like working with; I also respect him hugely as a clinician (that does not mean it’s always easy to work together; it’s not, but it’s satisfying, and it’s good patient care).  He talked about the situations where he could have done things differently; points at which he wished he could have taken a step back.  He wanted us to learn from his mistakes; and more importantly, we could see that he was learning them too.  That’s more important because that’s a skill that we need to have throughout our careers to continue to learn.  I think that’s more relevant than learning a single point in a unique case that may never come up again.  It’s also a lot harder, in so many ways.


There has to be some sense of balance in all this.  Nobody wants to be paralysed by the thoughts of past mistakes to the extent that they can’t do their job.  I’ve been that person: it’s not good for you, and it’s certainly no good for your patients.  Sharing your mistakes with your team is a way of getting some proportion back.  It’s also potential for solutions.  It’s what we do within our peer group: why is it so rarely visible between levels of hierarchy?

Back in the real world

Having these experiences so close to each other has led me to think about the other leaders I admire in my everyday life.

Here’s what I realised: they all do this.  In different ways, they are all honest and open about the mistakes that they make, and how they change (or try to) as a result.  The really amazing ones are open with everyone. (I think this is important too: I’ve seen before consultants talk through decisions that didn’t go well with families, and how they could have done things differently.  I’ve seen the same consultants then not accept that with themselves or their team.  I think that’s a much harder thing to do, because it’s both personal and professional.  But that’s another whole post.)

What makes these people so powerful is their recognition of mistakes.

Power isn’t about pretending everything is OK, that you are perfect.

It’s what happens when you own yourself enough to realise that mistakes happen, but that learning & changing is how to improve.


I can do the theory – that’s the easy bit.  Actually applying this in practic …*shrugs shoulders*.

Note 2:

Especially the section on “balance” and “not getting paralysed by fear of mistakes”.

Note 3:

And no, I still haven’t completed my multi-source feedback self-assessment on how amazing I am supposed to think I am at my job.