The Price Of Folly August 12, 2009Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: Best Of 2009, Leadership, Management Skills, Relationships
The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of their folly is to fill the world with fools.
Spencer was a Victorian-era English philosopher who focused much of his thought on evolution at a higher, social level. He coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and was an very well-known thinker in his day. It is safe to say that he would not suffer fools gladly, regardless of how they were produced.
Spencer’s quote was directed at some of the prevailing political ideas of his time and was intended to shape broad public opinion. Regardless of how you define “folly” (or “fool,” for that matter), his quote is a cautionary one: do not protect people from their mistakes, thus preventing them from learning from them.
His advice is just as important in the day-to-day business world that we all manage. Mistakes happen all the time, caused by hundreds of different reasons, let alone folly. How we handle them not only says a lot about our leadership skills, but also dictates how our organization succeeds.
With the current emphasis on soft skills, many leaders try to soften the impact of a mistake. Even when people are upset, we try to soothe them and diminish the impact of the error. Our goal is noble, and we may make them feel better, but we also miss an opportunity for someone to really absorb the impact of their error. Shielding a person from the impact of their mistake can be disastrous, leading them to believe that mistakes, although unpleasant, aren’t all that bad.
The opposite kind of leader is just as bad. Ranting and raving may make you feel better, but you are not helping the person who made the mistake. While Spencer may be happy that you have certainly not shielded them, it isn’t clear that you have helped them either.
There is a middle ground, of course, but it can be difficult to achieve. I do believe that people need to understand the impact of their error. Tiny errors at one level can cascade to become disasters later, and people need to come to terms with the magnitude of their mistakes. I will often explain to a person all the potential issues their error could lead to, not to make them feel bad (they should anyway) but so that they understand the real price that others may pay for their lapse.
But you cannot stop there. At that point, you must then work to find ways to keep that mistake from happening again. The only bad mistake is the one you do not learn from, and the only unforgivable mistake is the one that keeps happening over and over. As you analyze why a problem occurred, people may begin the process upset and remorseful, but they should emerge with a plan and a positive approach to make things better going forward.
You should apply this to yourself as well. When you know you’ve screwed up, you should feel terrible about it. But instead of wallowing in the remorse, figure out ways to keep it from happening again and move forward.
People don’t fail because they make mistakes. People fail because they don’t learn from their mistakes.