Your Best Chance At Success As a Leader: Mistakes

Leadership | July 12, 2022

Mistakes = Information

“Rachel, you will never BELIEVE what happened!”

Yasmina’s body tensed as her eyes darted around.

“My direct report… gah. She totally threw me—the whole team, really!—under the bus. I can’t stop thinking about it!”

As an early hire at a fast-growing tech startup, Yasmina moved quickly up the executive ranks. Highly skilled at and accustomed to her role as VP of Operations, the intensity of her own emotions at work still sometimes surprised her.

The encounter with her report triggered feelings that she couldn’t seem to move through. 

Here’s the problem: I followed her down the rabbit hole.

As she told the story, I found myself leaning in, urging her on.

“No way… I can’t believe how she behaved! So unprofessional… She sounds like a real piece of work.”

Yasmina nodded in agreement, satisfied that I agreed with her. 

She was only gone a minute after our session ended when I shook my head: 

Shit. I did not support her well as her coach.

It’s crucial for a coach to stay grounded, to offer a neutral perspective—by getting caught up in what had happened, I had acted more like a friend than a coach.

I knew my actions hadn’t served Yasmina.

Where so many of us go next when we make a mistake: what researcher Brené Brown calls a shame spiral

That moment of “oops, I effed up,” goes from regret to a full-fledged spiral into shame, defined by Brown as “the intensely painful feeling of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy.”

In other words, not just that what we did was wrong, but that we are inherently wrong—especially common for recovering perfectionists like me.

Like the old quote goes, “To err is human.” We all screw up. All the time. 

And: in the rush to judge ourselves, we can miss out on the big picture—the lessons we can learn from those mistakes.

Screw-ups bring important information—presenting itself only when we let it.

I’ve been doing this work long enough, and am confident enough in my coaching skills, that I could reality-check those encroaching feelings of guilt and shame. 

I took a step back and approached my mistake with curiosity:

Interesting how I got caught up. What in Yasmina’s story triggered an unconscious response in me, that I momentarily lost my grounding as a coach?

By disrupting the shame spiral, I give myself permission to make mistakes, which are inevitable. 

I was able to use curiosity to my advantage—and you can, too, the next time you feel like you mess up:

It starts with acknowledging. I knew I’d dropped the ball. Next, I took responsibility. I apologized to Yasmina in our next session. She was surprised—but also appreciated me giving words to the fact that our session wasn’t as powerful as it usually is. She appreciated my breaking down the nuance and owning that things had briefly gotten off course.

Then, take action to correct it. The next session was a reset: I was more intentional. That meant observing Yasmina while noticing what my own body was telling me, especially in emotional moments.

Be aware of your baggage. Any time we enter a room, we bring our thoughts, emotions, history, cultural background, and more—and all influence how we show up, often unconsciously. The more aware we are of our tendencies, triggers, and biases, the better we show up as leaders—awareness allows us to catch our mistakes before they happen, and better correct them when we make them.

By recognizing how Yasmina’s feelings affected me, by getting curious about my misstep, helped me become the best version of myself as a coach. The result was one of our most powerful sessions together.

The point is: everyone screws up—it’s what you do next that counts. Leaders grow faster when they turn failure into a friend and learn from it. To begin, schedule your complimentary discovery call with a MettaWorks coach.

Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant