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The Price Of Folly August 12, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , , ,

One of my favorite quotes is from Herbert Spencer:

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.


1. Susan Mazza - August 12, 2009

For me this points to the essence of the mindset required to hold someone to account in a way that honors both the individual and the organization. When people understand their mistakes and have the opportunity to fully feel and take responsibility for the impact of those mistakes without shame or blame they grow. And it is only by leaders holding people to account in this manner that you can create a culture of accountability.

2. Heather Hollick - August 12, 2009

Reminds of the old, no doubt apocryphal story about the sales executive who managed to lose a $10M deal. The CEO summons the sales exec to his office. Distraught, the sales exec opens the conversation saying, “Before you fire me . . . ”

The CEO snaps back, “Fire you! I just paid $10M to train you.”

3. Sam Bayer - August 12, 2009

I take this one step further in my Agile view of the world. I plan and execute projects with the expressed intent to accelerate failure. Why wait for failure to find me and force me to deal with it on its terms? I feel more in control when I flush out failure and deal with it on my terms. Failure is my friend 🙂

4. Wally Bock - August 12, 2009

Great post, Chuck. In my experience, the best bosses invest in prevention and then have a calibrated response to mistakes.

The prevention is all the work that a boss does to set expectations, check for understanding and follow up to see if understanding turns into performance. The best go for lots of small course corrections.

When mistakes happen, great bosses make a judgment about the level of response that’s needed. Sometimes that’s none at all.

I’m not differing with you. I’m only suggesting that many small mistakes are already known by the people involved and appear to be one-time lapses. Most bosses are best off letting those go to spend their limited time and energy on the things that need attention.

But that only works in a team where everyone, including the boss, are accountable for behavior and performance.

5. Brian Blanchard - August 13, 2009

Another great article…
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a supervisor: “Fail early, Succeed often”. There is no better source of innovation or growth than controlled failure and the genuine discussions that follow.

In the past, when hiring executives and managers, I have looked more closely at their failures than their successes. Every leader has failed at some point. Their reactions to those failures are the best indicators of their ability to lead and grow a team.

As an agilist, I have to agree with Sam, failure is our friend. Inviting that good friend and wise council to the table, significantly increases the likelihood of success. Embracing failure early in any endeavor will make the entire effort more enjoyable for the whole team.

6. Reigneer Nabong - August 13, 2009

Great article. From all the insightful comments, I’d say you can write a whole thesis on the subject. In a team environment, I believe the middle ground that fosters learning and avoid the pitfalls of both extremes vary for each team member. I believe team members’ personality traits play a big role in how the leader should address mistakes. Some may be able to take a little bit more “tongue-lashing” than others. There is a certain point when an individual will activate his or her defense mechanisms when being confronted with his or her mistakes. Great leaders are the ones who can come close to that point but never cross it.

7. Long Huynh - August 13, 2009

“People fail because they don’t learn from their mistakes.” And from others’ ones.
When I was a much younger manager, I has a “staff-of-the-month” scheme to honor a particular team member every month. The twist was that I made the choice by myself but asked the team to justify it. Whoever came closest got points for a year-end gift. When I started to select someone who just has made a big mistake, their initial surprise was gradually replaced by an understanding. Not only that the culprit learned from his/her mistake, but others would as well. From that point on, everyone took care to turn a mistake into something more positive.

8. Scott Booher - August 13, 2009

Great post Chuck. Agree that either extreme of feedback for errors made is not helpful. The trick seems to be dialing in the right amount of feedback for the situation, AND the person receiving it. Is the offender a hard case to get the message through, or are they just coming off another highly-visible goof and there’s a chance of overdoing it? It seems to me that leaders who can successfully gauge the right level/seriousness of feedback for these situations can really accelerate the growth/learning of staff w/o demoralizing them.

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