A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to move to a new position within my organization. I left a team of 10 to join a team of two. One manager (the boss!) and one employee (me!). I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning how to build a new type of working relationship… one with more visibility and accountability, but that’s not the point of this post.
This post is to share a story that took place early on in this new job. One that has become pivotal in my perception of mistakes, influence and creative leadership.
…and it all started like this…
A few months into my tenure, my manager announced he was going on vacation…
“Ian, I’m going on vacation for a couple of weeks… and you’re in charge.”
Here I was, relatively green behind the ears, being left in charge. I distinctly remember my good ol’ fight or flight reaction kicking in instinctively. The hairs on the back of my neck starting to stand up… my skin started getting clammy… I was instantly nervous… I think I played it cool…
“Uh, okay…” (I gulped)
I’m sure my response elicited incredible confidence… perhaps even prompting his next words. Words which have stuck with me ever since:
“Don’t worry… when I’m gone, you’ll have an unlimited stack of ‘Get out of Jail Free’ cards.”
I may have actually started breathing again hearing those words… my shoulders might have even released a bit of their newfound tension… the boss continued…
“Make the decisions you feel are best for the situation, be able to back them up… and if any issues arise we’ll sort them out together.”
I blinked… trying to make sense of what I had just heard. Essentially being told that making mistakes over the next little while was okay, and that they wouldn’t get me into trouble. Furthermore, if I DO make mistakes… it sounds like we’ll learn from them together!
I smiled, nodded and then we spent some time preparing for my new (albeit temporary) promotion.
There is a lot of literature written about the fetishization of failure, and how striving for failure is important in order for creativity to flourish. My perspective would be to simplify this approach: learn to be okay with making mistakes. Accept that they will be made, and to learn how to learn from them. However, a bigger question remains: How do leaders manage mistakes and failure in their teams?
There are plenty of positive, creative and productive ways of managing failure within teams, and this story focuses on one important aspect: the importance of creating psychological safety in order to empower employees. My manager set the tone in such a way that set me up to operate from a position of confidence, rather than one of fear. By invoking that famous phrase from Monopoly ‘Get out of Jail Free’ he created an environment where I could focus on the task at hand and not worry about negative consequences. This is hugely important, because as Alex Osborn famously said “Worrying is a misuse of imagination.”
As leaders, as teachers, as parents, as members of society, consider how much influence we have over enabling creative confidence simply by approaching things like mistakes from a different perspective. In what ways might we deliberately foster confidence and learning by bringing some creativity to our leadership?
Ian Rosenfeldt presents Rev Your Brain: Learn to see creativity in a new light at Mindcamp 2013.