Learning from our Mistakes

“There are three essentials to leadership: humility, clarity and courage.”

[Chan Master Fuchan Yuan]

“A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying… that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”

[Alexander Pope, in Swift, Miscellanies}

I searched a bit to find the quotes for this Leadership Thought, as I wanted to highlight the importance of humility, honesty, and the courage to recognize when one makes a mistake.  And as is often the case, this week’s quote has a story behind it.  One that involves my daughter and the mistakes we sometimes make as parents.

Last week was finals at my daughter’s school.  My daughter, Amanda, is like any other child, and finding an excuse for procrastinating is an art form for her.  In this particular case, Amanda had managed to go through the whole weekend without studying, and now the night before it was time for a crash study session.  It was getting late in the evening, and Amanda still had quite a bit of material to cover.  Instead of going to the study to review the material, she insisted on sitting in the living room with us with a constant pester of, “Help me study…”

Being an “old school” father, I took the position that to study means you must go into solitude and review the material over and over.  This led to a bit of an argument.  “Dad, that’s not how I study,” replied Amanda.  I countered, “Well, that’s how you need to study…now go in the other room and start reviewing your material.”  Back and forth this went, with my wife jumping in periodically to defend Amanda’s position.  Eventually the debate elevated to the point where all of us were frustrated, and in my infinite wisdom I ‘sent’ Amanda to the study to ‘figure it out’.

Later that night I sat in bed struggling with the earlier discussion.  “Pam?” I whispered to my wife…”do you think I was a little rough on Amanda?”  Pam replied, “Yes, you were a bit stubborn, and you may not be looking at things through her eyes.  They teach children to study differently now, and one of the techniques they use is flash cards.  All Amanda wanted to do was to have us review the flash cards, as it helps her to have us ‘quiz’ her on them…”  You could have hit me with a baseball bat and it wouldn’t have jolted me more than those words did.  I was wrong.  Flat out wrong.  And if I was going to teach my daughter any real values and leadership principles, I knew exactly what I had to do.

The next morning my wife and I got up early to help Amanda study for the test.  All three of us sat in the kitchen and ‘quizzed’ on flash cards for a good hour before school started.  But you know what was more important than that?  It was the words I said to Amanda before we began studying:  “Amanda, I made a mistake last night…and I am sorry.  Parents make mistakes sometimes, and it’s important that when we do, we are willing to admit those mistakes and correct them.”

Isn’t it so true how leadership often follows that same logic (or at least SHOULD follow that logic)?  Take the quote from Chan Master Fuchan Yuan – “There are three essentials to leadership:  Humility, clarity, and courage”.  Humility to recognize that you do make mistakes as a leader.  Clarity to see it.  And courage to admit it.    We are going to make mistakes.  It’s what you do after which defines your leadership.

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