Leadership Mistakes

Risk, Failure, Change, Education, and Success

David Earle asked:

“What is the object of education?” is a question I ask my entry-level students at the University of Phoenix. They respond with the answers that you might expect: “to learn”, “to excel”, “to extend yourself”, “to gain knowledge”.  All these answers are the hopefully the result of education but just what is the object of education?

It was Charles Darwin who said, “It’s not the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent, that survive; it the one most responsive to change.” This statement is not only the key for evolution but relates directly to the success of any business. What are the key factors required for successful change?

Is failure part of success? The great industrialist, Henry Ford said “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently”. The former head football coach of LSU, Jerry Stovall and I had the common experience of being fired. We were discussing our mutual experiences when he made a profound observation: “I wouldn’t hire someone who hadn’t been fired”, I looked him incredulously and then he continued, “I want to see if they landed on their feet or their head!” From that object lesson, I now give myself permission to make one risky and sometime expensive new venture per year. Two years in a row the ventures have not proven successful but I know one someday will. Unless I give myself permission to fail, I will not continue trying and ultimately never reach the rewards of these calculated risks.

In the book, Celebrate Your Mistakes, John W. Holt suggests having periodically “mistakes-review” meeting. The focus is not to punish but is designed for learning. Holt went on to suggest employee feedback on three things they did wrong this past month and what lessons they learned from it. I once worked with the entrepreneur, Jerry Brock, owner of the Brock Group, in Beaumont, Texas who exemplified this behavior. We completed the painting of a power plant that had lost money. Since I was the project manager, I was responsible for the success of this project. 

During the post-job review meeting, Jerry surprised me by asking me to write down what went wrong on this job and then to tell my co-workers the lessons learned. Expecting a reprimand for losing money, I gave Jerry a look of bewilderment. He smiled at me and said, “David, I’ve already lost the money on this job, if we don’t learn from the mistakes we’ll make them again. I only want to pay for the education one time.” From this experience, Jerry taught me that failure will be compounded if the lesson is not learned, for when not learned it is often repeated!

Several other experiences reinforced Jerry’s lesson. My sister, Janet Repa, is an artist in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now, an artist hands are very important to their success. I called her the night before an operation she was to have on her hands.  I asked her: “Janet, aren’t you worried?” She responded with a powerful message. She said: “No, I wonder what I will learn.” What a powerful stress reducer; life is a learning experience!

Again the lesson reappears with people in recovery from addiction. Relapse is when a recovering alcoholic returns to drinking and this behavior is a common occurrence in Alcoholic Anonymous. When a person returns to the AA meetings after a slip the question posed to him by others in recovery is not one of condemnation but only, “What did you learn?” These are examples of learning from mistakes by putting them into a broader concept of a learning experience. Is learning from your mistakes, part of the object of education?

The great philosopher, Socrates said “The Delphi Oracle said, I was the wisest of all the Greeks. It is because that I alone, of all the Greeks, know that I know nothing.”  Socrates provides the last clue about the objection of education; for in all Athens, he was the wisest because he knew nothing.

What is the object of education? If you haven’t guessed it by now, the object of education is to “Unlearn”. All this discussion of failure is nothing more then great opportunities to “unlearn”. Do you give your self permission to make mistakes? When making a mistake, will you land on your feet or on your head? Will you look adversity in the eye and say, “I wonder what I will learn?” Do you realize how much you do not know, how much there is left to learn? If so, then you have begun your education, the journey toward “unlearning”!


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