How Leaders Turn Screw-Ups into Learning Opportunities

August 15, 2011 12 Comments

Tank stuck in mudFor many of us, screwing up is in our DNA. It happens. Call it Murphy if you like, but it happens. When this happens to someone on your team and you’re in a leadership role, however, the implications of a mistake can be far reaching.

The most important aspect of these kinds of events, however, isn’t the incident itself. As a leader, the most important part is your reaction to these events. Those reactions are what end up defining you in the eyes of your team. Allow me to illustrate.

In my younger days as a tank platoon leader, I was prone to take some pretty bold risks. On one occasion, I decided it was a good idea to abandon the plan my commander had written and lead my platoon down a different route. That route happened to go through what the map said was a swamp. It didn’t look like a swamp to me though.

I was wrong. It was a swamp. (Note: when the map says “swamp” it is a swamp). Imagine a 68-ton vehicle stuck in mud 3-5′ deep. Now imagine me standing atop said tank waiting to get chewed out by my commander. Can you say “awkward?”

When he showed up, he smirked and said something that caught me by surprise.

“That’s a good stuck.” It felt like he was a bear playing with a bunny before it mauls it.

“Yes sir. It is.”

“Okay. Help your crew get it out. Tell me if you need anything.” A wave of befuddlement washed over me.

“You’re not mad? Aren’t you going to rip my head off?”

“Why? It was a dumb mistake but it’s not worth ripping you. Did you learn something about your vehicle’s capabilities? Are you ever going to drive through a swamp again?”

“Yes sir. No sir.”

“Lesson learned. Get it un-stuck.” He strode off leaving me in awe of how he transformed what could have been a significant emotional event into a positive learning experience. Needless to say my (and my team’s) esteem for him rose dramatically that day. He knew we knew we made a mistake – no reason to rub it in. Instead, he taught.

Contrast that event with another one of my infamous platoon leader screw ups (I made a bunch of oopsies as a young lieutenant). At tank gunnery, we had a flash fire on my vehicle during a live fire training. The fire suppression system went off (which was loud and scary). We thought our ammunition had caught fire too. We evacuated the vehicle. Our procedure for doing so was less than textbook (Can you say “Keystone Cops?”).

Fortunately, everyone was okay. Unfortunately, a reasonably seasoned officer witnessed the event. In that moment, he chose to berate instead of teach. He ripped me for the awkward evacuation. He ripped me for some hydraulic fluid leaking from the bottom of my tank (FYI – ALL tanks leak). He did all of this in front of my soldiers and my peers.

Not once did he stop to ask if we were okay. Never did it enter his mind to find something to teach me about. Nope. His sole intent was to excoriate. Sure he got his point across but he lost exponentially more points in respect than the single point in “rightness” he scored.

Screw ups will happen. As a leader, people will judge you by your reaction to said mistakes. Don’t take it lightly. Both of these incidents happened 15 years ago and I remember them vividly. So do many of my friends who were there. Both of these men formed their image as leaders in some small part those days – one favorable, one not so much.

How will you show up as a leader during the next screw up? How will you take that opportunity to teach instead of torture? It might seem small but that event will be larger than you can imagine. Make sure you create that positive learning event.

– Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC
– Grab a presale copy of my upcoming book One Piece of Paper. CLICK HERE to get yours!

12 Responses to “How Leaders Turn Screw-Ups into Learning Opportunities”

  1. Jonathan says:

    I once was in an M113 (despite not normally performing as a cav scout) that helped a young lieutenant and his stuck M1 out of similar scrape. He was stuck trying to cross a small creek. As soon as we pulled him out he signalled us to follow him as he headed right back for the same hole he had just made. Luckily, another LT with us was able to convince him to take a different route, however, after about 15 minutes following him around the two 113s deserted him to rejoin the battle rather than chase our tales. Sometimes leaders just aren’t as lost as they want to be. This incident helped me to see not only the right way to keep someone from making the same mistake, but that no matter how hard you try some people just insist on being wrong.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      If folks aren’t able to learn from their mistakes, hopefully they either choose another field of endeavor or you help choose it for them. Clearly they’re not cut out for that particular role so your responsibility as a leader is first to train them to competence. If you’re unable to do that, you’re responsible for moving them to a more suitable role. In not doing so, you’re hurting them by allowing them to continue to fail and you’re hurting the team as well because the team has to clean up the mistakes.

  2. Steve says:

    I would add to your suggested reading list, “Influencer, the Power to Change Anything” since it applies directly to the scenario you’ve described. I’m not much for model of the day approaches – but the concept that’s introduced (by the same people who brought us “Crucial Conversations”) offers an important distinction:

    Under certain conditions, especially very stressful ones, my behavior is different.

    Assuming that both leaders that Mike describes are equally competent (big assumption) – how does their behavior when under fire (in this case literally)…?

    This is an important distinction. We often approach leadership development only from the skills side. Here, we have to influence leaders to use failure as a coachable moment – and to do it even when the pressure is high. That means finding ways to turn failures into lessons needs to become so much of a habit for leaders, that they do it no matter what.

    • Rita says:

      I cannot agree more with the power of influencing in a leadership role.

      Even when their is a whole lot of pressure. Humans make mistakes, no matter how perfect we are. Maybe, thats what’s wrong with our economy. If leaders influenced their workers maybe people would not have given up so fast.

      I enjoyed reading your comments.

      Thank you

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      You’re right – situational leadership absolutely matters. Under fire and pressure people definitely make mistakes. The thing is it’s a question of the implications of that situation and how they affect the mistake. If your high pressure situation is getting a PowerPoint done at the last minute, a mistake is a lot more acceptable than if the situation is one where a vehicle is on fire. That’s why one of the skills we trained on was leadership in stressful situations so both dynamics were encompassed in the training.

  3. Al says:

    When I was young and starting out in business, I had made what i thought to be a major mistake. I was expecting to be reamed a new one since the owner of the company was known to be rather harsh as a former IRS executive.
    Instead, he simply made sure it was rectifiable and told me “The only person that never makes a mistake is the one that never does anything.”
    I have carried that philosophy with me over the years and have tried to be reassuring to the people I supervise when minor glitches appear and simply contribute it to the learning process.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      I love that boss. He did exactly the right thing. Also, the phrase he gave you is a PERFECT leadership maxim – a phrase or reminder of a powerful emotional moment that can be used in future situations to change behavior. I’m sure every time you run across a subordinate who does something boneheaded, you reach for this phrase to guide you how to behave. I encourage you to come share this maxim over on the Leadership Maxims Forum for my upcoming book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership (

  4. Brian says:

    What about those people who keep getting stuck in the same “swamp” over and over and over again? Those are the people that sometimes the stick needs to be bigger than the carrot.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Sure, the carrot first, then the stick, then the pink slip (figuratively). See my comment above on retraining folks and if that doesn’t work, your responsibility as a leader to move them to more appropriate roles.

  5. MOHAMMED says:

    This was a very useful information that everyone needs to know regarding leadership qualities………..nice one…thanks for your post

  6. Frank S. says:

    Good lesson. As a former M-1 Abrams tank crewmember, I can sympathize with you and your crewmembers. Whether privates in the Army or subordinates in any orginazation, they watch how leaders react when its crunch time. Your CO handled it perfectly. Given the circumstances, the most important element of the exercise was the take-away, which for all was positive. A leader must display coolness during crisis as your people will feed directly from it-positive or negative. As our business models evolve, we focus less on two important concepts which I call “Operational Aggressiveness” and “Situational Initiative”. These were both learned by you in your first example. It encourages the leader to make decisions and learn valuable lessons within an orginaztion that both promotes breaking paradigms and dare I say, think outside the box, as well as offer constructive feedback and coaching and not breaking the spirit and resolve of the leader.

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