In the interview for the How to Become the Best Engineering Leader in Your Field podcast, Jeff Perry asked me to share my triumphs and failures as a leader. (Actually, he asked for triumphs and mistakes.) After listening to the podcast, my son said, “Dad, you only talked about your mistakes. You didn’t talk about your triumphs.” That’s true. I bet you know why. But if you don’t, here are five reasons.
First, triumphs or successes accompanying my leadership journey were not mine. They were ours; the credit goes to the team, not to me. Remember, my goal is to be the leader of the best team, not the best leader of a team. Keep the focus on the team. Take the responsibility for failures; give the team the credit for successes.
Second, in my pursuit of continuous improvement, I spend very little time focusing on successes. Instead, I focus on failures and mistakes, trying to learn causes and what I should do differently in the future in order to avoid repeating them.
My focus on the future, not the past, isn’t limited to failures and mistakes. On page 93 of Why It Matters: Reflections on Practical Leadership I provide an example of me being often pleased but never satisfied. Although we achieved our 5-year goal of being ranked among the top five graduate engineering programs at Georgia Tech, I knew we could do better and be in the top three.
Three, too few leaders own up to their mistakes or take responsibility for a team’s mistakes. Too many play the blame game. They prove the adage: success has many parents and failure is an orphan. By being brutally honest about my mistakes, perhaps other leaders will follow my example. No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. If you were a major league baseball player and got on base only fifty percent of the time, you would be in the Hall of Fame.
Four, neither success nor failure might be due to anything the leader or the team did. Sometimes exogenous influences determine the outcome, not the decisions made. Bad decisions can have great outcomes and good decisions can have bad outcomes. Only by honest, objective assessments of “failures” can you learn if they were the result of bad decisions or unpredictable conditions. (Although successes should be subjected to the same assessments, it’s usually best to not look a gift horse in the mouth. Chances are great that you already know success had nothing to do with your decision.)
Five, I did a poor job of time management. I made a mistake. I wish I’d cited numerous successes resulting from the extraordinary work by the teams I led. They deserved to be in the spotlight.