Months before the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, Soviet military intelligence reported their intentions to Joseph Stalin. He ignored the news.
A Russian spy in Japan even reported details of the planned invasion. Stalin insisted it was all just a British plot. None of his advisors dared to force the issue with him.
Even with over 2 million German soldiers positioned on Russia’s border, Stalin ordered his men to carry on as normal.
Stalin’s behavior exemplified an all too common truth: when a leader refuses to admit mistakes, followers suffer.
Stalin could have avoided millions of casualties if he had cultivated an environment where his subordinates felt safe to voice their concerns.
If your company is going to not only survive, but thrive, your leaders and managers need to be willing to confront the possibility of failure. They must be able to admit past failures and start learning from mistakes. Failure is not the end of the story; it's the beginning of success.
7 Myths People Believe About Failure
Some leaders, like Stalin, think they show strength by never admitting mistakes. They want to be seen as fully competent and always in control. Ironically, this stubborn mindset can leave your leaders at their most vulnerable. Leaders who refuse to admit mistakes will fail to learn from them.
Your leaders can start seeing the value of making mistakes by understanding 7 myths people believe about failure:
1. Failure is Avoidable.
You’ve heard the saying “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” Alexander Pope wrote that expression more than two hundred and fifty years ago. It’s still true today. You’re going to make mistakes. Forgiving yourself and your leaders for past mistakes will empower them to move forward with confidence.
You and your leaders are human. Recognizing that mistakes are inevitable gives leaders the ability to use mistakes as a growth opportunity instead of a setback. The following Rules of Being Human describe well the state we’re all in:
2. Failure is an Independent Event.
- Rule #2: You will learn lessons.
- Rule #3: There are no mistakes—only lessons.
- Rule #4: A lesson is repeated until it is learned.
- Rule #5: If you don’t learn the easy lessons, they get harder.
- Rule #6: You’ll know you’ve learned a lesson when your actions change.
Your leaders need to realize that failure is a process. If they ever flunked a test, it didn’t mean they failed a one-time event. The F grade showed they neglected the process leading up to the test.
In The Success Journey, John C. Maxwell said success is not a destination; it’s not a place where leaders arrive one day. Instead, it’s the journey they take. Success or failure is determined by what gets done day-to-day. Failure works the same way. It’s not a destination, but part of the journey along the way.
3. Failure is Objective.
When your leaders err, and we all do, what determines whether that action was a failure? It shouldn’t be determined by your knee-jerk reaction to those leaders. Failure isn’t determined that way, because so much of it is subjective. If someone thinks they have failed, then they have failed. The way we perceive and respond to mistakes determines whether or not it is a failure. According to Tulane University business professor Lisa Amos, the average entrepreneur fails 3.8 times before finally succeeding because they don’t see setbacks as failures. When your company perceives mistakes as opportunities—not failures—they will become learning opportunities.
4. Failure is the Enemy.
If your managers and leaders see failure as the enemy, they will fall behind those who see them as learning opportunities. Herbert V. Brocknow warns, “The fellow who never makes a mistake takes his orders from one who does.” Observe any high achiever, and you’ll discover a person who doesn’t see a mistake as the enemy. As Drobpox founder and CEO Drew Houston said, “Don’t worry about failure; you only have to be right once.”
5. Failure is Irreversible.
Encouragement to correct mistakes from superiors can be what turns a possible setback into an opportunity for growth. There’s an old saying in Texas: “It doesn’t matter how much milk you spill as long as you don’t lose your cow.” The problems come when your company leaders see only the spilled milk and not the bigger picture.
6. Failure is A Stigma.
Leaders need to know that mistakes are not permanent markers. I love the perspective of the late Senator Sam Ervin Jr., who remarked, “Defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out.” That’s the way we need to look at failure. It doesn’t define leaders. It frees them to shine.
7. Failure is Final.
If your leaders make what may be perceived as a huge mistake, you can turn that into a huge learning opportunity if you have an attitude of encouragement. Leaders who fail forward are able to see errors as a regular part of growth, learn from them, and become better for it. Errors become mistakes for your company when you perceive and respond to them incorrectly. Mistakes become failures for your company when you continually respond to them incorrectly.
Everyone really does make mistakes. Yes, everyone. And if your managers lead under the constant fear of making one, your company will suffer.
Share this post to encourage learning from mistakes as you reflect back on the previous year and prepare to tackle the challenges ahead.