What I’ve learnt about leadership by making mistakes

Written by Charles Wade - 24 May 2019

Lightbulb among scrunched up paper

With so much unrealistic pressure put on young leaders to consistently perform, our Future Leaders Panel member reflects here on the importance of making mistakes.

‘Well Charles, what do we do?’. It was a cold Wednesday night in February and 13 pairs of eyes turned to look at me, awaiting my response. A sudden influx of unregistered guests had turned up at the night-time shelter for refugees I had recently begun volunteering with, surpassing our official max capacity and breaking the invite-only policy of the organisation. Despite being one of the youngest stood in the foyer of the church, a feeling of nervous delight filled me as I suddenly realised that, with the other volunteers being even newer than I, my word was final. ‘There are enough beds’ I said, ‘they can stay’.

Confessing this in the report to the organisers the next morning wasn’t easy. My impulsive decision would lead to problems for the other volunteers the following nights and would even risk the scheme not being allowed to continue the next year.

Getting things wrong isn’t a nice feeling and when it happens, we can often try to cover it up, hoping nobody will notice. As tempting as this was, I could recall all too well the times when problems left hidden had suddenly reared their heads, causing 10 times the issue they would have if they had been dealt with straight away. Trying to shift the blame can also be appealing but as much as I would have liked to complain, for example, about the lack of clarity over regulations and question why I was suddenly put in this situation, it wouldn’t have resolved the problem and would only have caused friction and division among the team.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t raise potential flaws in the system or accept fault that is not our own - this can lead to issues going unnoticed and not being dealt with. However, honestly and quickly confessing my mistake was probably the only thing I actually got right that night and as well as relieving a weight off my mind, it led, surprisingly, to a word of thanks from the organisers who were able to react quickly to limit the knock-on effects.

It’s all very well confessing a mistake but for days I couldn’t help thinking, ‘what could I have done better to not mess up in the first place?!’. I never got a conclusive answer to this question but the two important lessons I have learned are about when it’s important to trust in instructions and when it’s time to stand up for what you believe in.

Whatever position of authority we may hold, we will almost always find ourselves answerable to someone or at least to a set of instructions that we need to trust in. An unfortunate flaw of mine, however, has been the tendency to see these rules or instructions as guidelines and therefore break them as and when I think I know better. I once had summer job as a waiter in a restaurant and used to drive my boss up the wall by doing what he said for about the first 15 minutes until I saw something else I thought needed doing and running off after that until an angry shout would bring me quickly back down to earth! Don’t get me wrong, using your initiative and thinking outside of the box are vital skills but I’ve learnt the hard way that sometimes it’s important to follow instructions. I guess learning when to challenge them is part of progressing through life and in a career.

Alongside trust comes the courage to stick up for what is right. On that cold Wednesday night in February, I had the niggly feeling that allowing unlisted guests to stay wasn’t right but faced with a group of men who were older and considerably more solidly built then myself, I was too afraid to say no. Pressure can take many forms and whether it’s from work colleagues or clients or even temptation from within, we can often find ourselves pushed to abandon what in our hearts and minds we know to be right. ‘With all due respect Charles, you should have called me’ were my boss’ first words after I owned up and he was right. Since then I’ve seen how, when we feel out of our depth or unsure, mustering up even the smallest bit of courage to phone a friend, colleague or manager to ask for help can make all the difference.

Mistakes in life are inevitable but I realise now that part of being a good leader isn’t about always getting it right; it’s about recognising when I get it wrong and having the strength to correct and learn. So, from admitting to times I mess up to trusting what I’m told, developing the courage to hold firm to what is right and not being afraid to ask for help, these are all simple lessons that I now know can go a long way!


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Charles Wade

A 21 year old student studying French in Paris, I split my time mostly between academic work and my responsibilities as Vice-President of the Students’ Union. My favourite means of escape from these include running, singing, volunteering and helping out at church.

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