A Great Story About Why Some Mistakes are Better than Others

Eight groups of seven students submitted group projects this week that were supposed to demonstrate and teach leadership. One group learned and taught me the most. Largely, because they made a mistake. I recommend following their lead. Having made 8,237 decent-sized mistakes in my life, I’ve not only come to accept but even to really appreciate mistakes, and this one taught me something new.

They began with the Steve Martinesque “wild and crazy guy” idea of interviewing Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer about leadership, stature and authority.  In the world of seven degrees of separation, they were knocking on his door, as time was running out. They asked for more time. I said no. And that’s when they anxiously met and devised an entirely different tack. They decided to write about their breakdown, assessing why their initial design was flawed, and about what they could have done differently. But their approach to this analysis demonstrated an approach that almost never happens in groups. They took the time to each write about what they thought went wrong. And then they all read those seven accounts.  Then they put together a video based on their initial insights but profoundly enriched by that second level of learning. Not only did they learn, but they challenged some of my key ideas of teaching the course.

So, what was it that made their mistake so powerful?

1. Their initial venture was so out-of-the-box that they almost HAD to learn new things. Mistakes that are part of daily business aren’t likely to yield a lot.  But they were energized by their crazy project, and going far afield led to new learning.

2. They learned that they made two main mistakes:  (a) they didn’t have a shared vision about success, and (b) they had not taken objections — to a very cool project — seriously enough. People went-along-to-get-along.  But most of all:

3. They went back and learned the richness of their different views. So often we think we understand each other, and we don’t listen to our own and others’ hesitance and uncertainty.  And seldom do we actually fully listen to those rich points of view (especially when in a post-mortem we have to deal with failure, and we’re likely instead to point fingers and silently or otherwise believe “if only people had listened to me…”).

So: get out of the box and think big, get clear about what you ALL think success will look like, and take the risk of hearing really different views of the world.

Lead with your best self,




  • I think people might explore the work on post-mortem audits for additional ideas on what you have presented here, Dan

  • Love, love, love this story! Two additional “lessons” that I see:
    – You saying no led to a possibly deeper learning than if you’d said yes to the request for an extension on the deadline.
    – They came up with their own self and group reflection process – that’s leadership and mutual accountability.

    Did I mention I love this story?

  • I heard someone recently define the purpose of education to be the practice of coping
    with reality but not to the exclusion of fantasy because that may turn out to
    be a paradigm shift. Of course the only problem for those people unwilling to accept it is that they wake up from here on out to find themselves staring at the clock Bill Murray used in Groundhog Day!

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