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  • Leading with Trust: Learning from Mistakes

    Published on Friday, November 1, 2013

    Becoming a trustworthy leader is a lifelong journey that starts with possessing or developing the qualities of honesty, caring, persistence and consistency in relationships. These are essential qualities to have if leader/follower relationships are to be based in trust. Trustworthy leaders also possess visionary thinking and communication skills that they use to inspire people to move forward, following the leader’s direction.

    Leading a group of people forward is different from having people go with you because of compliance. Compliance happens when people just do their job, are uninspired by the mission, are motivated simply by the paycheck, or are so worn out by politicking that compliance becomes their best choice.  Compliance is not what employees aspire to, yet what they may fall into.

    People follow trustworthy leaders out of commitment. When leaders help employees to see how their own work contributes to the mission of the organization they are able to more fully commit to that work. When leaders convey their overall vision to employees, a high trust, highly committed organization can be created.

    This distinction between compliance and commitment is useful for understanding how some people become great leaders while others run growing, yet uninspiring, companies. In my experience researching great leaders and the qualities that distinguish them from average leaders I’ve seen that the ability to inspire commitment rather than compliance is a key differentiator.

    A leader’s ability to connect people with a powerful mission and vision, and to embody the mission and vision in action, motivates people to commit.  Actions that are based in the qualities of trustworthiness link people’s commitment to the organization with their trust in the leader.

    Creating Commitment

    Most people are trustworthy. We trust our friends because over time we’ve learned that they are worthy of our trust.  We’re confident that the promises they’ve made to us will be kept. This same analogy applies to leaders we choose to follow. We look for evidence over time that we can trust and commit to following them.

    In the workplace, one method for determining the trustworthiness of a leader can be found in her approach to learning from mistakes. The best way to learn from mistakes is by acknowledging the mistake, examining what happened, evaluating options, and then trying again. When this occurs a follower can see the leader’s learning process, and can also see if that same learning process is supported for others. If employees make mistakes are they also encouraged to acknowledge, examine, evaluate and try again?

    An organization in which learning from mistakes in a constructive way is the norm will be an organization where people openly share ideas and listen to critiques, for the betterment of the whole. A leader who shares stories with employees, colleagues and other leaders about how he has learned from his mistakes as well as the mistakes of others, will, through his honest dialogue, begin creating relationships based on commitment rather than compliance.

    These sorts of stories provide a mechanism for assessing the consistency of a leader’s actions and words. Do the stories – that talk about constructive learning from honest mistakes – match the actions that occur within the organization? If so this can heighten an employee’s personal commitment to the organization as a place where one’s own growth and development is of interest to leaders. It will also encourage employees to persist in their efforts to be successful.

    Learning at the Best

    In my own research on what makes for trustworthy leaders I often hear leaders at Best Companies to Work For speak of their debt to mentors or former colleagues who helped them learn from mistakes by reviewing situations in which things hadn’t gone well. The best teachers of this ‘review’ learning were people who recognized their own mistakes, analyzed what happened, considered alternatives to avoid the same dilemma again, and then told the story. Telling the story was key, as this helped the mentor learn from the event each time she told the story, and helped the young leader-to-be to learn as well.

    Other teachers – of tremendous value yet where the lesson was more difficult – were people who taught about what ‘not to do’ rather than by providing positive examples. These teachers were described as people who moved forward in their actions paying little heed to the damage they caused. Thankfully many people who are currently great leaders learned from the experiences they had with this second group of teachers and followed their own commitment to ‘do things differently’ when they had the chance.

    I’d like to share two stories to illustrate ways that trustworthy leaders learned from their own mistakes or the mistakes of others. These stories show how each leader used the experience to help others learn and how this has resulted in people’s ability to follow – willingly and with commitment.

    Scripps Health

    Chris Van Gorder, CEO of Scripps Health, began his career as a police officer, yet left due to an on-the-job injury. His work in health care started with his first position as an emergency room clerk and then as a security guard (not at Scripps), working night shifts to support himself as he attended school. As he told the story to me, it was one night when he was doing his security rounds in the quiet halls of the hospital, that he had an encounter that would later significantly influence his own actions as a leader.

    He happened to notice that the hospital administrator was walking down the hall toward him, perhaps returning from a meeting. Chris was thinking that this could be a significant opportunity-to meet the administrator-given the unlikely possibility that he, a night security guard, would run into him again.

    He recognized the administrator by his photo, on the wall of the hospital, placed in a position of honor.  “I was about as low on the totem pole as you can be in my position,” Van Gorder remembered, “and here’s the hospital administrator, walking down in the basement in the middle of the night. And I went, ‘Wow—I am going to get a shot at meeting this guy.’

    “And I will never forget what happened. He walked by me as if I didn’t even exist.”

    As Chris told me this story, 25 years after it had happened, the emotion of that moment was palpable. Its impact on Chris’ leadership philosophy was profound.  As he says, “Everyone has their role and their purpose in life, and sometimes, in fact most times, the people who are out in the field doing good work are far more important than I will ever be in my position as CEO. I always try to treat people well so that they know how much I respect their hard work.”

    The ‘mistake’ that Van Gorder experienced in that moment in the hallway is unfortunately something that many people experience on a daily basis – passive lack of recognition from a leader.  Why would anyone choose to follow that leader? A person may still do their job well, support colleagues, provide good service, and have a personal goal of doing a good job. Yet committing to the leader is not going to come out high on the list of results from an encounter like this.

    The true cost of this type of encounter is paid when a leader asks for more from employees, wants to take on a new challenge, or tries to rally people to tackle difficult issues within the organization. Without trust – and the respect that comes with it – people will not be committed to follow the leader.

    Learning from this type of an incident though is a very positive outcome. Van Gorder has done that, and many people have benefited.  The lessons from this ‘meeting that didn’t happen’ form some of the building blocks of Van Gorder’s personal leadership style and are used to teach others about the importance of acknowledging people, conveying respect and being trustworthy.


    At EILEEN FISHER learning from mistakes is taken so seriously that it is included in the Leadership Principle “Tell the Truth”. People are asked to ‘tell the truth’ in part by being open about mistakes and recognizing that in the midst of a mistake a new solution can be found.

    Leaders have placed a clear mark on this practice by directing people to learn from what they may struggle with by openly sharing their mistakes with others.  People are invited to comment on each others work with kindness, and they are also asked to comment on their own work when the mistake is personal.  Everyone is included – leaders and front line employees – in the notion that mistakes happen, and all can learn from them.

    Leadership principles exist in many organizations but they are not always so clearly written as those at EILEEN FISHER (EF). What do they do at EF to help people put the Leadership Principles into practice, teaching people to be comfortable with the idea that making mistakes is a learning experience? As often happens in organizations with trustworthy leaders, the learning and sharing start at the top.

    Eileen Fisher herself tells stories about the mistakes she made early in her life as an entrepreneur, emphasizing the reality that everyone makes mistakes, and everyone can learn from what goes wrong. She sees mistakes as the greatest learning opportunity people have, connecting the idea of mistakes to one of possibilities, rather than to fear or shame. She uses her own mistakes to illustrate her point of view and to be a role model to help others learn how to share.

    In the early days of the business, Eileen worked with only one fabric.  One season while the spring deliveries were being shipped out, she began receiving phone calls from buyers saying the garments were bigger than the samples they'd seen, and the fabric felt different.  The returns came flooding in.  This problem put her in danger of losing the business, as she couldn't manage the returns financially by herself. 

    Friends advised her to sue yet Eileen felt a win-win option would be better. She met with the factory owner, showed him the product compared to the samples, and they worked out a deal that made it possible for Eileen to produce her next delivery.  They shared the expense of the mistake so neither was left in the lurch.  In addition Eileen learned that it was too risky to work in only one fabric.  This discovery led her to diversify into other fabrics and her business literally exploded with growth.

    Another mistake happened many years later, when the company was larger.  Eileen decided to split the collection into two separate lines, EF and EF New York, creating a casual line with lower prices and an elegant line geared towards work and formalwear.  It was a struggle to convince department stores to put the EF New York collection in the area of their stores that women shopped in for work clothes.  Splitting the line caused department stores to split the collection and the change had a cannibalizing effect. The end customer chose to shop one or the other collection, and sales dropped. 

    Eileen realized that this change, though well intended, actually contradicted her original design concept.  Analyzing the steps that lead to this mistake got leaders to look back to the roots of the company and build up from what was EF’s strength rather than trying to fill the needs of both sectors of the stores. 

    Have either of these stories, and Eileen Fisher’s own ability to learn from her mistakes, influenced other leaders within the organization? In 2011 when EF’s Business Planning leader had two new employees starting around the same time, she held a special team meeting for them to focus on the big picture of the team and company, and to cover the company values.  She began the meeting by talking about the company’s approach to making mistakes, explaining that everyone is at EF to learn and that “it is important to make mistakes since that's how we learn.”  She shared her own stories of mistakes made, and to inject some fun into the situation, she bought huge pink erasers for each team member, on which she wrote "For Really Big Mistakes!"


    The stories of mistakes made, lessons learned and the success that followed, along with the humor of the pink erasers, has deepened the process of learning from mistakes that has helped EILEEN FISHER to be so successful.

    The story from Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder illustrates the powerful impact that a brief encounter can have on our lives and of our ability to learn from the mistakes of others long past the time of the incident. It is also a powerful reminder to leaders that any encounter can be an opportunity to build up, or tear down, trust.

    Leaders who learn from their mistakes and share their stories will develop committed rather than compliant followers. When they ask for more from people they will have a green light rather than dragging feet. Leading with trust works.


    [This blog post is adapted from my article in the new book Trust Inc., available on Amazon]

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