The alarm went off at 5:40 AM as usual. I unplugged my phone and took a bleary-eyed look at my email. In it, I saw an automated report had come in about one of our programs. While hoping to see at least a number of 20, and would have been happier with something closer to 30 or even (dare I dream) 40, my heart almost stopped when the bleary eyes focused enough to absorb what I was seeing:
Holy crap, I thought, getting that pit-in-the-stomach feeling. What the heck happened?
Now, I’m not going into the exact details of what I did wrong (I’m transparent, not crazy) but let’s just say it was a dumb mistake that caused an unnecessary, and very irritating, problem — one with potential hard-dollar ramifications if I didn’t get it fixed. After three or four hours of investigation and a couple of calls with one of our vendors, I was able to determine what occurred so it would never happen again. With the help of Nancy and Kate, we came up with a plan to remediate the damage so everyone would be made whole.
But I was really, really upset with myself. How could I have done it? How could I have been so dumb as to make such a foolish error with such a large potential impact? It was just the kind of error that would have incensed me if made by someone else. Though I may have said the right thing, I’d certainly have been thinking: “Dumbass.”
And that’s no kind of thinking for anyone who aspires to be a good leader.
The reason for my low tolerance was because I’d been on a mistake-free hot streak which inevitability sows the seeds of arrogance, no matter how hard one tries to avoid it. It seems almost a law of nature that success leads to hubris — we may continually remind ourselves that we’re not God’s gift to this green earth, but a hot streak makes us do so with our fingers crossed. There is simply nothing that brings us down to earth like a user-error screw-up, and so executives who achieve such ignominy once in a while — if they have the courage to admit it — can leverage those moments to actually become better leaders than their hot-streaking peers.
Simply put, screwing up has an upside.
Want proof? Look around while you’re driving — I guarantee you those who are texting, eating and putting on makeup are the same folks who haven’t had an accident in a very long time, because there is nothing to awaken one to the dangers of distracted driving like a fender bender, or worse. As such, look at the arrogant leader and I’ll show you someone who simply doesn’t get it, or gets it but simply forgot that we all make mistakes.
Stuff happens, failure is part of significant effort, and solid leaders need always to remember that error is not something to cry about (if they do it) or scream about (if done by someone else), as long as the root cause is identified, steps are taken to eliminate a recurrence, and, most of all, a little humble pie is served.
For me, it came just in the nick of time.