How Purpose-Driven Leaders Handle Two Kinds of Mistakes

Most leaders recognize, your team is going to make mistakes. The challenge is, all mistakes are not equal. There’s a big difference between errors of apathy and errors of enthusiasm.

Errors of apathy are the kind of mistakes that happen when no one feels responsible, so everyone just passes the buck. I’ve observed that organizations run by quantitative metrics and productivity measures (alone) are more likely to create a culture where errors of apathy are tolerated, even tacitly encouraged. That’s because when leaders micro measure everything, the driving force in the organization is usually fear. People are afraid to make an error, so they rarely challenge the status quo.

Errors of enthusiasm are driven by a desire for success. They occur when someone actually does something. They’re born of hustle and innovation. They’re more public. The consequences are more immediate and the costs are obvious.

Purpose-driven leaders have very little patience for errors of apathy. Mistakes driven by a lack of engagement or ownership cut deeply.

What purpose-driven leaders are more receptive to, and in the best situations, even encouraging of, are errors of enthusiasm.

I first recognized this distinction, between errors of apathy and errors of enthusiasm, when I was analyzing my own performance many years ago.

In the early days of our business, money was tight. As our revenue grew, we loosened up the purse strings. One year, after we’d had our best year ever, we were reviewing our financial results. I saw that my travel expenses were huge. I’d take several fairly expensive trips that had not resulted in closing any business.

I told my husband, “Next year, I want to make sure my win rate is higher on these trips.”

He said, “I think that’s a mistake. If you’re winning everything, you’re probably not trying hard enough.”

He was right; I wanted to be safe. I wanted every trip to pay off. But we’d just had our best year ever!  Much of our success was because I’d been willing to get on an airplane and put myself out there even when it wasn’t a sure win.

Through decades of consulting, I’ve come to realize, the organizations who fail are the ones who fear failure the most. The teams who put a rigorous metric on everything and who go to extreme lengths to minimize any potential collateral damage wind up creating an environment where no one wants to take risks. This stymies innovation and creativity.

How a leader responds to mistakes sets the tone for the organization. Healthy, innovative organizations take risks. Not stupid, uncalculated risks, but risks nonetheless. They make errors of enthusiasm. Frequently. Because they know, no one ever put a dent in the universe without making a few mistakes along the way.