August 25, 2015 Anil Saxena

Leadership Follies – Teenage Mind In The Heart Of Leaders

Have you noticed that business, politics, entertainment, and the average person have created a culture of abdication and finger-pointing? Do you find yourself or businesses and people around you practicing this adolescent behavior? 

I certainly have!

And a recent letter that a friend showed me from their soon-to-be-adult child cemented this belief for me.
The resounding undertones were:

  • I didn’t make mistakes.
  • Every bad thing I did was a learning experience.
  • My actions weren’t bad, your interpretation of them was.

Everywhere we look, there are examples of this.

“I did this because of them!” Or ”my actions were their fault.”

This unbecoming attitude is shown up with Herman Cain, John Edwards, Jeff Skilling, and Bernie Madoff.

Some valuable questions:

  • At what point do we/you/us/me take full responsibility and face the full consequences of our actions?
  • How can we actually learn if we don’t acknowledge there are mistakes?
  • When did we decide that making mistakes, failing and telling the truth were bad ideas and practices?


“Just trying to be nice…”

Positive Psychology, Organization Development, and other bodies of knowledge have developed whole sets of vocabulary to alter the world of work.

The intentions were to shift language, when appropriate, to move from blame and ridicule to support and learning.

It seems like we have taken things too far though:

  • Words are ‘smithed’ and sculpted outside of their original or real intent
  • Messages are softened so as not to offend or create conflict
  • Rhetoric is toned-down so as not to ruffle any feathers

All of this is done in an effort to make things easier to hear. But perhaps, I think we have taken this too far.

We are perpetuating an adolescent mindset that shuns or avoids the best that the maturing process brings and we are creating insufficient sophomoric future leaders.

How They Shape You

There are two truths about mistakes:

1. They happen to all of us because we are human.
2. They shape us and how we approach life.


When I was a teenager, I took my father’s brand new Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham out for a “joyride”.  I was convinced that my parents were not going to let me drive legally, so I would “show them.” Keep in mind, I was a teenager and my brain was not fully formed.

I crashed the car into…another car. Let’s just say my father was not pleased. I not only had to pay for the damages to his car, but all the other damages I caused. I had to apologize in public.
I was angry, hurt, and most of all remorseful.
My parents did not sugar coat my mistake. Yes, I said mistake. I screwed up! They were very clear that they were upset with what I had done, not with me as their son.

I faced the full financial consequences of my actions, and I was not allowed to get my license until I had fulfilled my punishment.  That whole experience taught me a lesson about life and my responsibility.  It shaped me.

If a person does not accept their mistakes, then the person wronged can not move on from it, or forgive them. After making a mistake, the person will not be able to look at what they did and learn from it.

This will ultimately waste time in fabricating mitigations to the mistake and circumstances around it. It causes more stress than it relieves.
Saying a mistake is a “learning experience,” without acknowledging error, abdicates your responsibility in actions taken.  
The more we sugarcoat a mistake, or try to act like we “don’t make mistakes,” the less likely we are to really change, learn, and grow.

“Learning experiences can come from mistakes, but they can not replace them.”

A learning experience is what you do in class or how you overcome a bad habit.  It is the outcome.  If you interrupt people on a regular basis, that is a fault or mistake.

Your learning experience can be the time you interrupted your wife and she called you out on it.  Once you acknowledge you made a mistake to interrupt her, you are able to learn from it.

Saying you did not make a mistake does not allow you to really learn from it.  It also works to undermine the relationship.
It is vital that leaders understand that failure is not only an option, but inevitable.
The magic is not when you fail, but what you do about it.
There is a simple pattern that most great leaders follow:
1. Make a mistake. Generally speaking, this is the easy part.
2. Quickly admit that a mistake has been made.
3. Acknowledge the mistake and what was learned from it.
4. Implement learning publicly or transparently.
5. Repeat
Here is a great recent example of this from Amazon after they failed miserably and were blistered in the press:

“This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle.

Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received.

We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission. 

With deep apology to our customers,

Jeff Bezos 
Founder & CEO”

There are countless examples of leaders that try to do damage control, “mitigate,” and pass the blame on to anyone but themselves or their company.

Here is the path they typically follow:
1. A mistake is made.
2. The mistake is covered up or shrouded somehow.
3. Mistake is made public by a government agency or the process, but blame is deflected by the organization to users, consumers, etc.
4. A non-apology apology is made, but little action is taken.
5. No one acknowledges mistakes or someone that really doesn’t have authority is blamed.
6. Repeat.

Outstanding recent examples of this “failula” (failing formula):

  • Toyota blaming drivers for the brake problems in some of their cars.
  • BP and their vendors not acknowledging blame during the Gulf Oil Spill.
  • Netflix trying to launch a new brand and raise prices at the same time.

All of these showcase that it’s better all the way around to say, “I made a mistake,” “This is what I will do to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” and “Let’s fix what’s broken.”

If we want to survive as an intellectual society, we have to teach the next generation how to accept mistakes and recover from them. Not how to avoid them and push the blame.

Do you find yourself accepting your mistakes and learning from them? Or do you tend to push the blame on others? What areas in your life can you improve on learning from your mistakes, and becoming a better leader by doing do? And how can you help the “teenage” adults around you grow a little more mature this year? I’d love to hear your thoughts!                        

This blog also appears on the Linked2Leadership Blog.  Please visit them!

Anil Saxena is the President of Cube 2.14, an organizational development consulting firm that works with clients to increase both customer and employee engagement while decreasing turnover, improving customer retention, and increasing profitability within organizations.

Saxena is a certified High Impact coach and trainer and a Joint Application Design facilitator. He is also certified by both Rush Systems and IBM as a focus group facilitator. He is an inaugural member of Northwestern University’s Learning and Organizational Change program, and he earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology.


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