How Can You Succeed If You Don’t Make Mistakes?

If you’re like I used to be, you look at people and organizations you consider role models and see (mostly) their successes. Then you look at your own career or business and wonder what you’re doing wrong.

As paradoxical as it may sound, our road to success is paved with the mistakes we make.

I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots in my career. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeed.”

(Michael Jordan; professional basketball player)

How do you deal with your own business or career mistakes or mistakes in your team? Do you seen them as a barrier to success or do you embrace them as valuable learning opportunities; in other words – stepping stones to success?

In today’s combative and unstable business world, the cost of mistakes is – very! – high. That’s why both organizations and individual executives have become so unforgiving of mistakes and the people who make them. In all too many cases, advocacy of a business environment that allows mistakes is nothing more than lip-service. All too often, too, these same organizations and executives who continue depending on the safe solution wonder why they seldom do more than keep pace in business, if that.

We all know that the markets we are involved in remain in flux – and therefore so do our organizations and our careers. Skills and knowledge that we possess at the onset of our careers must continue to grow and expand along with the challenges we face if we are to do more than get by in business.

The courage to embrace the necessary risk on the road to business success can only be nurtured and sustained by an intact and progressive leadership culture. Leaders must understand and accept that innovation and change go hand-in-hand with experiments, risks – and mistakes. It takes a strong leadership personality to optimistically weather that particular storm in today’s market, and to understand that they cannot motivate proactive risk-taking in an environment where their teams do not feel safe.

That’s why it is important to not only give permission – to yourself, your team, your organization – to take risks, but also to establish a secure environment where risk-taking and the sometimes inevitable mistakes are seen as part of the individual and organizational learning curve and welcomed and rewarded as such. This can mean being prepared to lose individual battles in favor of achieving long-term business or career goals. It can also mean the difference between mediocrity and success.

Coaching Questions

Ask youself:

  1. How have I handled (individual, team or organizational) mistakes in the last six months? Did I transform these mistakes into learning opportunities for myself/my team/my organization? If not, how could I have done so?
  2. How has your image of yourself/your team/your organization changed following a recent mistake? What effect has this change in image had on the actual quality of work being done now? (How) Could you have influenced this effect in a more positive way?
  3. Take a look at current projects in which you are involved? Are there any that aren’t progressing as positively as you had expected? If so, how can you transform these shortcomings into learning opportunities that will benefit future projects?

Remember: There is no shame – for you, your team, or your organization – in making a mistake, only in refusing to learn from it!


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