Leadership: You’re not perfect

Many entrepreneurs I know, including the one I see in the mirror, have a definite tendency toward perfectionism. That may help us do well in school, but it may create anxiety about exam-taking that makes us sick. We may feel we’ve failed if we graduate as anything other than class valedictorian. It’s definitely a mixed blessing.

After leaving school, most of us quickly learn that in order to create a life worth having, we’ll have to jettison the idea of doing everything perfectly. Actually, the idea of doing anything perfectly.

Mistakes are part of our continuing education.

It helps that through conversations, through reading and through collective wisdom we can learn a lot from the mistakes of others and avoid repeating those. Even before opening the doors to a new business you will hear a lot of advice in the vein of, “Well, don’t do what I did.” We must sift through all that advice for the helpful kernels and be open to mixing them into our plans.

There are some mistakes we entrepreneurs seem to have in common. Whether we’re starting a business or introducing a new concept or product, we must be alert to the combination of fiery passion and flimsy plan. If you’re wincing because you’ve experienced this mistake, you know there are many lessons to glean. The fire in the belly is exciting and priceless. Yet the smoke from it can blind us to critical details, like doing the math that shows how this idea will make money – or not. How do we capitalize this concept? Do we have the resources to make it happen? Am I nuts?

Another obstacle is the Lone Ranger mentality. We don’t like this in our sports heroes or even our tennis partners. I certainly was guilty of this in the early days of my business. Instead of asking how the business would be enriched by incorporating the ideas of my associates, I worked on strategies for convincing them that mine were the way to go. I was blessed with many wise colleagues in my business and they quickly taught me the value of diversity on the team. In learning other organizations I saw examples of the CEO hiring herself or himself over and over.  Not a fertile situation for business growth.

Related to the one-man-band mistake, is being in love with our beliefs. It is good to know where you stand. Sometimes though that is just the starting place for growth. Conducting business, like anything else is a process of holding on and letting go. If we’re grasping tightly and rigidly to our own belief systems, opinions on policies and practices, the tension creates a noise that won’t let us even hear the other side. Maybe we’ve been carrying those beliefs around for decades. We miss noticing the changes that have impact on the business. We lose touch.  Soon no one really wants to converse with us since what we say is predictable. In order to evolve and not be left behind it is important to know your core values personally and as an organization. These will be fairly constant, and few. We’d go to the wall for these core values. Beyond that though, and still respecting our own beliefs, we’d better have some windows open to the opinions of others. We want to be alert to the winds of change, even when those winds are mere whispers.

Many business owners have a tendency to thrive on crisis. We’re fairly good problem solvers. That’s a plus in most cases. The difficulty arises if we’re so attached to that set of skills that we want to use it all the time. We might train our colleagues to rush all emergencies to us. It might be an international monetary crisis, or a funny sound in the air conditioner. Bingo! We shove aside everything on the desk, don the cape and rise to the crisis. The ego is well-fed and by golly do we have excuses for that pile of unfinished work. Of course family life is interrupted. Who else would they call at 11 p.m.? We can develop a litany of self-talk in the “What next? – It’s always something” language. Solution-oriented thinking is a blessing in business. We just have to make sure it doesn’t take over.

Accountability is a good thing as well. The danger is making the blame game a major part of the organization. Check yourself first. As they say, begin within. Do you tend to drag blame around long after an event? “I should have…Damn, why did I” etc. We will make mistakes. We have the choice of learning whatever lesson lies therein and then letting go or crowding our existence with regret and self-criticism. In this area the style of the leader will usually permeate the organization and everyone gets clever at dodging blame. Integrity and trust shrink as fear grows. If you sense that is happening, get busy reversing it, dispelling fears, welcoming mistakes as part of creative thinking – in yourself and others. 

We all make a lot of little mistakes every day. There is a wealth of learning in our mistakes and those of others in our environment. Some are like mosquito bites. Others are quite costly. We survive most. If you make a big splashy mistake, own up immediately and fully, reflect deeply on any opportunity for learning from it, shake yourself off and go on.

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