What have you done wrong lately?

In reviewing Eels latest release, in the Sunday Times, Mark Edwards writes of its creative lead E: “In Everett, Eels fans have found someone who makes all the mistakes they do, but is willing to admit it…. Never more so that on his latest album, which lays out recent missteps and mercilessly examines them in search of useful life lessons.”


It can be rare for our professional leaders to admit mistakes.  In career terms that kind of honesty can be seen as weakness.  Some people move jobs so frequently that they can leave their mistakes behind them, perhaps not even to be discovered until they have moved on.


Advertising supremo Stevie Spring suggested recently that there should be an award for the best learning from stuff that went wrong.  What a refreshing idea.  The tendency in awards writing is to tell a faultless narrative that usually runs : here’s a huge problem for a brand; here’s our brilliant insight; here’s our flawless execution; here’s some amazing results.  I love the idea that we might learn much more from the disasters.


The same problem often happens in training programmes where the narrative flow goes:  Here’s some common work issues, here’s the flawless way to correct them.  The training day might flow faster (and with more fun) if everyone brought their mistakes and then workshopped how to remedy them.


My global CEO Stephen Allan likes it when people admit their mistakes.  It’s kind of reassuring when you understand that the very very worst thing you can do is try to cover up a mistake, and no mistake that you can think of could possibly as bad as not owning up to it.


At a recent conference Steve admitted one of his mistakes to a packed hall.  “A lack of speed” on occasion in making things happen, was what he confided to a few hundred attendees.


It would be refreshing if a board meeting started with what everyone had learnt from their mistakes recently.  It is said by many at the moment that businesses are risk averse.  If we could normalise a culture of talking about our mistakes and showing what we had learnt from them, then perhaps risks would seem, well, less risky.


Mark Edwards concludes his review of “The cautionary tales of Mark Oliver Everett” by suggesting that we might not actually learn any life lessons from the album, but that we do “experience exquisitely beautiful music”.


Equally, we would surely at the very least hear some great stories if we talked more about the stuff that went wrong.  I have a closet of war stories. Like many people I usually keep them to myself, but I do know that’s when I have learnt the most useful lessons.  Am happy to share !


England Rugby player and World Cup 2003 hero, Will Greenwood,  speaking on the same panel as Steve Allan, said he’d learnt that  “the only thing you can count on in any critical situation is that something will go wrong”.  As someone said to me today : “Soldiers will rally behind a leader who isn’t as good as they would like him to be, but they won’t rally behind a leader who isn’t as good as he thinks he is”.  It’s better to be upfront about your mistakes than pretend that you never make any.



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