The facade of infallibility is often little more than an obstacle to improvement.
Last year, EXHIBITOR published a feature story titled "My Favorite Mistake," which detailed some of the most memorable errors made by a half-dozen veteran exhibit and event professionals. The stories (including everything from a $75,000 currency-conversion miscalculation to an in-booth inferno at a show full of firefighters) had most readers either chuckling or nodding their heads in empathy. But those tales all shared one commonality: a valuable takeaway.
I have mad respect for the six face-to-face marketers who served as sources and fessed up to their foibles. After all, nobody likes to make mistakes – nor have those blunders published in internationally distributed magazines.
Generally speaking, we prefer to sweep our errors under the rug as quietly as possible. But I've come to realize that doing so robs us of our snafus' silver linings. The realization of one's own gaffes is an opportunity to do five things: laugh at yourself, admit to your error, learn from your mistake, foster honesty, and pierce the veil on the notion that anything less than perfection is abject failure.
"The people for whom I have the most respect don't hesitate to say 'I was wrong,'" wrote Erika Andersen, author of "Leading So People Will Follow." "On the other hand, the people I have the hardest time respecting seem constitutionally unable to take responsibility for their own mistakes. Even when they try, it comes out sounding like 'I may have been partly at fault, but...' They just can't do it."
Ron Thomas, a chief human resource and administrative officer, goes so far as to suggest that you're not a real leader until you can admit to screwing up. And I tend to believe him. Like Andersen, when I reflect on the most collaborative and successful teams I've been a part of, I realize there's a common denominator: We were empowered to make mistakes, so long as we acknowledged them.
Doug Guthrie, a professor of international business and management at the George Washington University School of Business, explains why that is in an article titled "Creative Leadership: Humility and Being Wrong." According to Guthrie, humbleness and the ability to admit error may be two of the most important qualities of a modern-day leader.
"We are frequently taught that leaders, especially aspiring leaders, should hide weaknesses and mistakes," Guthrie writes. "This view is flawed. It is not only good to admit you are wrong when you are; but it can also be a powerful tool for leaders, actually increasing legitimacy and, when practiced regularly, can help to build a culture that actually increases solidarity,
innovation, [and] openness to change."
As an editor, I've misspelled words, misquoted sources, and inadvertently offended readers with my sense of humor. And while it's easy for me to wax poetic on the topic of admitting guilt, I haven't always been the best at taking credit for my inaccuracies. But as I get older, I find that the facade of infallibility is often little more than an obstacle to improvement. Our mistakes make us better, smarter, and more efficient, but only if we own up to them and take note of the lessons they can teach us. In fact, I'd argue that the path to prosperity is typically strewn with a succession of slip-ups. As inventor and businessman Thomas Edison allegedly said before successfully inventing the nickel-iron storage battery, "I have not failed.
I've found 10,000 ways that just won't work."
The hard truth is that if you never admit you're wrong, even to yourself, there's a relatively good chance you're delusional. So allow yourself and those around you to mess up. Stop pretending (or expecting yourself) to be infallible. Sometimes errors will come with consequences, but don't compound them by passing the buck, making excuses, and ignoring the educational opportunities those blunders afford their makers – or you will have effectively failed twice.