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Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Human beings spend their lives trying to avoid discomfort. It’s the way our brains are programmed. Leaders get up every day with the same instinct to do what they feel like doing and to avoid what they don’t. No one enjoys feeling ashamed, embarrassed or like a failure. Leaders are understandably anxious to rid themselves of the discomfort their mistakes cause.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

But discomfort is the most powerful trigger for change. This is why the best leaders embrace the discomfort that they experience after a leadership failure. They understand their distress fortifies the memory of the event, creates the motivation to avoid making the same mistake again and invites examination of the circumstances that contributed to the error, thereby creating an opportunity to improve processes and intentions.

How can you do it?

Document your feelings immediately. Feelings are inherently unstable and fleeting. Describe your painful feelings and their intensity in your journal before your brain soothes them with the usual defensive salve. If you wait, their energizing potential will be lost forever.

Describe your feelings to your colleagues. Speaking openly about your unpleasant feelings further strengthens your memories and preserves the enabling emotional pain. This admission also prevents you from denying your distress to yourselves and others later.

Resist the urge to suppress your feelings quickly. When your brain creates discomfort, it promptly begins the process of replacing it with feelings of comfort by generating rationalizations and other defensive minimizations. Resist this process long enough to learn something from your mistake.

How have you successfully embraced the discomfort caused by your mistakes?

The post Managing Your Mistakes: Embrace the Discomfort They Cause appeared first on SOMC Leadership.

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Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Leaders don’t usually view their mistakes as useful leadership tools. They view them as aberrations best minimized and quickly forgotten. Leaders just want to move on. Leaders are much more likely to rationalize their mistakes than to seize on them as opportunities to learn, grow and motivate others.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Mistakes create discomfort, and distress always signals an opportunity to learn. If you choose to embrace your failure-generated discomfort instead of avoiding it, you will transform a perceived liability into an asset. By sharing what you have learned and your willingness to learn it, you will encourage fellow leaders to take the same uncomfortable risk when they fail.

How can you do it?

Embrace the discomfort. You will find this difficult to do. The human brain is wired to avoid discomfort. You will find yourself instinctively trying to put the whole thing out of your mind. Be intentional. Be tough. Make yourself feel the discomfort fully.

Accept responsibility. When you experience any unpleasant feeling, you will find yourself immediately blaming other people or circumstances beyond your control. Recognize the disruptive belief that triggered your defensiveness and replace it with the constructive belief that only your brain can make you upset.

Announce your failure quickly. The best way to contain the embarrassment of making a mistake is to stop defending yourself and take full responsibility for it instead. And just admitting your mistake is not enough. Go public, accept full responsibility, apologize. Make restitution if possible. After that, you and even your critics will be forced to admit that no reasonable leader could do more. You will all now be ready to move on.

How have you leveraged your mistakes in the past?

The post Managing Your Mistakes: Leverage Them appeared first on SOMC Leadership.

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Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Mistakes are painful. Leaders naturally want to put them out of their minds as quickly as possible. Our brains work hard to comfort us, convincing us that we are nearly perfect, shielding us from self-doubt, reassuring us that we are better than most other mortals. And while people understand their leaders make mistakes every day, they do enjoy picking at their leaders’ scabs, cutting them down to size while reassuring themselves that these hypocritical leaders are no better than everyone else. Leaders don’t enjoy such public flaying, reminding their followers that it is always open season on a leader’s shortcomings.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Mistakes contain valuable lessons, but these nuggets of truth cannot be successfully mined without the mental tools reflection provides. So long as your thinking about your mistake triggers discomfort, there is an opportunity to learn. Time and intentional ignoring will soon obscure the lessons you might learn. This is why you will want to invest some time and energy reflecting while the motivating pain is still present.

How can you do it?

Make reflection a priority. Because reflection on your mistakes is so uncomfortable, you will be strongly inclined to put this off. After a day or two, you will move on to other things, and the opportunity to learn from your mistake will be lost forever. This means you will be more likely to make the same mistake again.

Document your reflections in your personal leadership journal. Just reflecting is not enough. Document your reflections in a journal. Better yet, create a leadership case study and present what you have learned to your associates. Give them a chance to learn from your mistake and to share what they have learned from their own leadership failures.

Invite feedback from your colleagues. Because your brain works overtime to reassure you that you are special, you might have missed some unflattering lessons your mistake revealed. Your colleagues will be able to see your shortcomings better than you can see them yourself.

How have you reflected profitably on your mistakes?

The post Managing Your Mistakes: Reflect on Them appeared first on SOMC Leadership.

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Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

When leaders talk about their stupid mistakes, it evokes painful memories they would rather not recall. It also punctures their comforting delusion that they are exceptional people who don’t make such mistakes. Insecure leaders mistakenly believe telling stories about their weaknesses will diminish their reputations as leaders.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Actually, the opposite is true. Leaders who are forthright about their mistakes are usually viewed as more trustworthy. Down deep, we all understand how imperfect we are, and when our leaders admit the truth we feel better about ourselves. We also understand that admitting one’s failures takes guts and we admire those who are willing to take such public risks.

How can you do it?

Recognize your defensiveness. You will not be able to successfully manage your defensiveness until you recognize it and accept it as the normal way your brain responds to any perceived threat to your mental image of yourself. The best way to accomplish this is to speak the truth out loud. “I’m feeling threatened and defensive and that feeling is perfectly normal under these circumstances.” This admission will prepare you to move on to the next step.

Reframe your failure as an opportunity to succeed. If you manage your mistake promptly and appropriately, most such failures can be transformed into successes. Reasonable people are inspired when leaders take full responsibility for their shortcomings. The unreasonable people will remain critical no matter what you do.

Accept your obligation to provide a service. This is one of the things you signed up for. Leaders understand that many of their mistakes will be public. You have a duty to model how a leader should manage her mistakes.

How have you successfully shared your mistakes with others?

The post Managing Your Mistakes: Share Them appeared first on SOMC Leadership.

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Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

If leaders don’t believe what they did was a mistake, they can’t learn from it. If leaders believe what they did was someone else’s fault, they will blame them instead of holding themselves accountable. If leaders minimize their lapse, they will also minimize their opportunity to learn.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

If you don’t embrace the pain and discomfort triggered by your flawed judgment, your brain will fail to encode the warning signal you will need to avoid making the same mistake again. Don’t forgive yourself too quickly. A serious leadership failure is not something you should ever forget entirely.

How can you do it?

Document what happened. Write a leadership case study. Describe how you felt, what you believed and exactly how you behaved. Then describe how you felt, what you believed and what you did after you recognized your mistake.

Identify the factors that contributed. Most of us don’t fail because we are intentionally doing something wrong. We usually believe our actions are justified at the time. We may be emotionally aroused or distracted. We often make assumptions that dictate our actions. These assumptions may turn out to have been mistaken.

Share what you have learned. Offer to make presentations to other leaders about your leadership failure. Tell your story to illustrate how frequently all leaders fail and to encourage others to be more open about their own shortcomings.

How have you learned from your mistakes?

The post Managing Your Mistakes: Learn from Them appeared first on SOMC Leadership.

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Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

First, there is the human tendency to become defensive when we feel threatened. Second, there is the normal impulse to minimize, explain and blame when things go wrong. Finally, there is this complicated truth. Leaders rarely make serious mistakes without a good bit of help. These complicated realities strongly incline all humans to conclude they are not entirely at fault.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

But you can only solve problems when you take responsibility for them. This means you must jump at the chance to take the blame even when the problem is not entirely your fault. Of course, others were probably complicit. Face leadership reality. Leaders take more than their share of the blame when bad things happen and less than their share of the credit when good things occur.

How can you do it?

Go on the record publicly. Communicate with everyone who was involved. Tell stories about leadership failures using yourself as an example. Offer to talk about your mistake with young leaders who are still striving to be perfect.

Keep it brief. The more you talk, the less people hear. It’s wise to remember this always, but brevity is critical when you are holding yourself accountable.

Let your feelings show. Leadership failure is painful. It’s embarrassing and humiliating. Don’t pretend that facing consequences is easy. Fellow leaders who see you leading through your pain will be more likely to follow your example when their turn comes.

How have you effectively taken responsibility for your mistakes?

The post Managing Your Mistakes: Take Responsibility for Them appeared first on SOMC Leadership.

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Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Leaders tend to apologize too little or too much. Some leaders believe that they can continue behaving badly, apologize when they get caught and thereby wipe the slate clean. Their followers soon conclude that these repeated apologies are not sincere. Other leaders find it hard to apologize because they believe they did nothing wrong or that what they did was no big deal.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

People read emotions and behaviors better than they read words. If you are not sincere, they will figure it out and give you zero credit for your strained apology. If you apologize promptly and hold yourself accountable, they will be more likely to conclude you are sincere, give you another chance and to view you as a credible leader. The longer you wait to apologize, the more likely your colleagues will conclude you are only doing so because you couldn’t think of another way out.

How can you do it?

Don’t put it off. The sooner you go on the record with your genuine apology, the more credibility you will gain as a trustworthy leader. If you wait until you are forced to apologize, you will miss your chance to make the best of a bad situation.

Hold yourself accountable. Do not blame, complain, whine or explain. Keep it simple. “I did it. It was wrong. I, alone, am to blame. I am sorry. I will learn from this. Thank you for holding me accountable.” Rest assured, people are going to hold you accountable anyway. Turn their scrutiny into a service by thanking them for it.

Promise to learn from your mistake. This is the easy part. If you manage your mistakes correctly, the discomfort you will feel will strongly disincline you to make the same mistake again. Do not promise to stop making mistakes. This is a promise you cannot keep. You can decrease the number of stupid mistakes you make, but you will never be able to eliminate stupidity altogether.

How have you apologized effectively for your mistakes?

The post Managing Your Mistakes: Apologize for Them appeared first on SOMC Leadership.

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Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

No one wants to make stupid mistakes. When leaders make such mistakes, they would just as soon keep them to themselves and forget about them as soon as possible. Because everyone is watching leaders, it’s hard to keep leadership failures private. So, the next best option is to pretend that what appears to have been a mistake really was not a mistake at all. This inclines leaders to justify their actions, to blame others or to attempt to explain away obvious goofs.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Because everyone will expect you to become defensive, immediately taking full responsibility for your mistake and apologizing for it will surprise people and, paradoxically, enhance your credibility. While everyone admires the leader who promptly and gracefully admits his shortcoming, most leaders still find this nearly impossible to do.

How can you do it?

Recognize your mistake. Many of your mistakes will be apparent to everyone but you. Here’s the reason. If you had been thinking clearly, you would not have done what you did. This means you usually need help from others to recognize your mistake. Offer to question your colleagues about their possible mistakes if they will return the favor to you.

Resist your instincts to explain, defend, minimize or blame. This is a lot harder than it sounds. Our brains are designed to present us in the best possible light to ourselves and others.

Admit it promptly and publicly despite your painful embarrassment. Like so many other unpleasant things successful leaders do, this will go against the grain. You have already discovered that doing the right thing is usually harder than doing the wrong thing. This is why there are so few real leaders in the world. They spend most of their time doing what they don’t feel like doing.

How have you learned to admit your mistakes promptly and gracefully?

The post Managing Your Mistakes: Admit Them appeared first on SOMC Leadership.

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Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Here is a curious thing about some of the most obvious leadership failures. Leaders don’t even realize they’ve made a mistake. Most embarrassing leadership mistakes are made unintentionally or while blinded by emotional arousal and it never occurs to the leader that she made a mistake until someone else points it out.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Leaders who recognize their mistakes quickly and admit them can often reverse the damage and improve their credibility. We all make mistakes. The only difference is that some of us admit them and some of us do not. The leader who never reflects on his decisions and admits that mistakes were made invites ridicule, not followership.

How can you do it?

Reflect on your decisions—particularly impulsive ones. Here’s the deal. Most of your impulsive decisions made in the context of emotional arousal will turn out to have been mistaken. If you neglect to reconsider, you may never figure this out. But everyone else will.

Ask for honest feedback—and then accept it gracefully. Most of us are hesitant to give our leaders feedback, even when they invite it. The harsh reality is that we leaders, like every other human on the planet, delude ourselves that we are l lot better than we are. If you really want feedback, you must convince the truth tellers that the risk is worth it.

Consider how you might feel if another leader had reacted the same way. We can all see other’s mistakes a lot easier than we can see our own. Remember the emperor’s clothes. That story has survived for a reason.

How have you recognized your mistakes?

The post Managing Your Mistakes: Recognize Them appeared first on SOMC Leadership.

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Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

We are all legends in our own minds. We convince ourselves that we would never make the same kind of stupid mistakes others do and, if we did, we are confident that we would manage them better than they have. We indulge ourselves in feeling superior instead of reminding ourselves and we have made similar mistakes in the past ourselves and that we are predisposed to make the same sort of mistakes again.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Force yourself to face the truth. If you were in that person’s shoes, you would make the same mistake she did. You will learn more from studying other’s mistakes than deluding yourself that you are better than that. The truth is, all of us humans are frightfully similar.

How can you do it?

Consider the context of your colleague’s mistake. Remember, no leader sets out to do something stupid. Consider whether your fellow leader was tired, angry or distracted at the time. Reflect honestly on what you might have done in the same mental state and circumstances.

Recall the similar mistakes you have made in the past. Take a break from reassuring yourself that you would never do such a thing and face the reality that you have done the same or worse in the past. Perhaps your gaffe was not public and therefore not as embarrassing. But you are not immune. None of us are.

Analyze the mistake with a trusted colleague. Take an uncomfortable break from feeling superior and consider the similar mistakes you have made in the past while reminding yourself that you are at risk for making the same kind of mistake again. This perspective will help you create helpful mental barriers to repeated slips.

How have you learned from other’s mistakes?

The post Managing Your Mistakes: Study Others’ Responses to Their Mistakes appeared first on SOMC Leadership.

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