In command of your mistakes

February 24 2022

Errors possess a special power. They lead to both pain and innovation. While it might be difficult to look the beast in the eye, to be a true leader you must have the courage to face and acknowledge your mistakes, experts say. Even to the extreme.

What if I want to make a mistake, but I can’t make a mistake? Have I then made a mistake? It is a well-known philosophical thought experiment that easily shows that the phenomenon of ‘wrong’ actually has an elusive character. After all, mistakes can have very painful consequences in extreme cases, but they can also lead to brilliant innovations.

Take Jocko Willink’s story. The former Navy SEAL and his team came under heavy fire in Ramadi, Iraq. When the gunpowder fumes had cleared, it turned out to be a case of friendly fire, the worst combat situation for any soldier. Several men in the team of Willink were injured and an Iraqi soldier friend died. While Willink initially tried to find an external culprit for this huge mistake, he eventually had to admit that no one but himself could take the blame. After all, he was the commander of the platoon where the drama took place.

Extreme ownership

“Then it hit me”, Willink writes in his bestselling book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. “Despite all the failures of individuals, units and leaders, and despite the myriad mistakes that had been made, there was only one person to blame for everything that had gone wrong during the operation: me.” It was a huge blow to his ego and a heavy burden to bear, Willink writes. “But because I took full ownership of the situation, my commanding officers actually trusted me more. If I had tried to pass the blame onto others, I suspect I would have been fired – deservedly so.”

This – albeit – painful insight benefitted Willink even more on the long run. He founded his company Echelon Front. The mission of this company is to educate, train, mentor and empower leaders and organizations to ‘achieve total victory’. In their own words, Echelon Front applies unmatched leadership. A goal that can only be achieved if you own your biggest mistakes and failures, no matter how painful and difficult that might be. Being able to own your mistakes to an extreme extent is the core of Echelon Front’s philosophy. In a nutshell: a leader should always take responsibility for everything that happens in his or her team. Even if the mistake is clearly made by one particular person underneath the leader’s wings, the leader should take the blame and then either invest in the team member who made the mistake or fire this person if trust cannot be restored.

Making mistakes is also part and parcel of the business world. In the best cases mistakes ensure introspection and growth. If there is one sector where things have often gone very wrong in the recent past, it is the financial sector. Banks in the United States took too many risks when granting mortgages, after which many homeowners were unable to repay their loans in 2007. The resulting trouble for the banks led to a worldwide financial crisis which opened the eyes of many financial institutions. How could it have gone so wrong? And above all: how could mistakes like these be avoided in the future?

Error management

Eliane van Steenbergen is Professor of Supervision Psychology (a chair at Utrecht University in collaboration with the Netherlands Authority for the Financial Markets). Together with fellow researchers she wrote an article with the telling title Learn to build an error management culture. Much of what Van Steenbergen concludes in the piece is in line with what Jocko Willink suggests. “Although anyone may agree at an abstract level that ‘to err is human’, it can be very hard for employees to admit to errors when they occur”, Van Steenbergen writes, for example. And: “An error management culture exists within an organization when employees dare to admit to their errors and active communication takes place about errors.”

The researchers came up with a framework for an error management culture that should help both financial and other institutions: LEARN, which stands for Let the board take ownership, Engage employees, Align structure and culture, Refocus from person to system, and Narrate the best examples. Substantial scientific evidence supports the value of creating an error management culture across a wide variety of organizations. However there are of course limitations, given the elusive nature of what mistakes are.

It all comes down to looking for balance in terms of making mistakes. Professor of Organizational Psychology Naomi Ellemers sums it up aptly in a column in Tozine, published by the Centre for Crime Prevention and Security (CCV): “In practice we often see that it is difficult to find the right middle ground. Sometimes there is misplaced loyalty to, for example, a unit within an organization. Errors are then disguised so as not to damage a unit’s reputation. The other extreme is the ‘zero tolerance’ approach, where someone who has done something wrong is dealt with without mercy by those who are authorized to do so.”

Failure expert

These are practical examples and dilemmas that Remko van der Drift knows all too well. He has even built an entire business model around the phenomenon of errors. He calls himself a failure expert. Van der Drift has written several books on the subject, founded the Institute for Failure Science, and also tries to make business managers aware of how best to deal with making mistakes. “Actually, the power of mistakes is of course some sort of cliché”, says the expert in the field of mistakes. “We all know by now that you can learn from mistakes. The funny thing is that most people are not willing to really look for mistakes. We are much more concerned with success and performance which in turn weakens the power of mistakes.”

In his latest book, Fouten maken moet moed, Van der Drift argues that a mistake is nothing more or less than an action if you remove the judgment that comes with it. “It is often the consequences of this action that ultimately determine whether we label that act as wrong or not. Not the act itself. Columbus actually wanted to go to India, but he discovered a continent. Nobody blamed him for that afterwards and said he had made a mistake.” Van der Drift sees that ever more companies are consciously creating room for mistakes on the work floor. Only then a company or team can grow and really improve. “Take Scrum. It contains a number of principles that embrace different ways of dealing with errors, such as dealing flexibly with a case, experimenting continuously, reacting quickly, and communicating openly if something goes wrong.” When it comes to making mistakes, Van der Drift argues to reward open communication about mistakes you made. That reward could be given financially or in other forms. “You could perhaps give an award to the person who dared to communicate openly about a mistake and was not afraid to share his learning yield. Only by doing this you can create an environment in which mistakes can actually be made and you give room to their elusive power.”


This is an article from The Spartan, a magazine by WAES. The Spartan is being published twice a year.

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