To Err Is Human, to Make Mistakes Is Divine


"Congratulations! You're now the leader of the new accounts team." With these words ringing in my ears, I headed home. I was happy, but also terrified. What would the team think? What should I do? I stopped at the bookstore and bought a few books on leading people. With a cup of coffee and a gallon of determination, I stayed up until 2 a.m. reading and making notes. A few short hours of sleep later, I marched into the office, girded with my new found knowledge and good intentions. I often over-intellectualize my experiences and spend a little too much time wearing my virtual thinking cap, imagining just how perfectly things will be now that I know what usually amounts to just enough information to be dangerous.

Speaking of dangerous, even my clothes were sharp. I had on a striped blue, cream and grey shirt, with a cream-colored blouse and stockings and grey kitten heels. My earrings pinged against my neck making little clinking sounds like the sound of extra money in my pocket. I was all set, had a plan and was determined to do everything right to really earn the raise I had been given.

First, I had a team meeting, and then, individual meetings with all my team members. I explained what sort of leader I was and what they could expect. I asked questions, smiled until my cheeks ached and nodded so incessantly that they must have wondered where my string was hidden. As I transitioned back and forth from carefully curated speeches to active listening, my inbox was filling with the level of email that would become my new norm. Among those emails was an invite to an upper management meeting -- my first one -- with members of my division's executive team. Wanting to know about my first day, no doubt. What would I say? My team was certainly polite, but their reaction to my leadership perfection was tepid and somewhat dubious. They'd have to come around eventually... wouldn't they?

At the appropriate time, I began to traipse through the maze of desks and cubicles toward that glorious room of upper echelon leadership when someone called my name. I turned and one of my team members called out "I have a customer escalation I need your help with!" I had just spent the day iterating my "customers first" commitment, so I could hardly shirk from taking this call. I made a detour, pulled up a chair, grabbed the headset and started talking the customer out of their anger tree. Once the customer had climbed most of the way down, and we were nearly finished problem-solving, I reflexively leaned back in a split second of hubris and self satisfaction.

No sooner had I done so, than the broken chair I had grabbed in my hurry to demonstrate my amazing values decided to show its true colors and flew out from underneath my perfectly quaffed hair and accessories, unceremoniously dumping me on the floor. On my descent, my knees hit the keyboard tray under the desk and acquired long jagged scratches which decided to bleed an excessively dramatic amount of dark red blood into my nylons, turning them from a color reminiscent of "mildly foggy morning over the water" into "night you'd rather forget." Apologizing to the customer for the strange sound I had just made, I finished the call laying on my back on the floor with my skirt scrunched embarrassingly high around my upper thighs. My team was by this time crowded around and after several of them had seen my underwear, they helped me to my feet. Smoothing my skirt over my battered legs, I took a little bow. Everyone clapped. Genuine smiles covered their faces for the first time that day. I had just lived the metaphor of literally falling down and picking myself up again. It was inevitable that this real life fable end in some kind of moral.

I limped into the boardroom and somehow explained my appearance and finished the meeting. That part is a blur. What I remember most is what happened to me and my team. We had really truly connected for the first time that day and the goodwill extended by that foible and the inevitable later ones that followed created a bond of true power. That day, I learned an important lesson. I'd be acknowledged, and I would achieve success at work, for what I did right. But I'd connect with people, prove my character and have meaningful conversations around what I did wrong. I make mistakes a lot, and not all of them are funny, but they are all incredible opportunities. My goal is to create a layer of transparency and openness about them with others, so we can bond, learn and grow together.

I've also learned that calling things what they are carries incredible power. I once worked at a software company where the word "bug" was verboten and we'd speak instead about "unintended product consequences", even when those affected were insisting we speak with them plainly. Just owning who you are as a human being, a professional and a company, especially when you need to share that something isn't going as planned, elevates your plain 'ole ordinary mistakes to the level of magic. Enjoy being human. It's divine!