I’ve often had a strong belief that you have to make mistakes to learn, to grow, to evolve, to eventually excel. When I was a kid I played t-ball and was more interested in playing in the dirt than learning to play baseball. While I never grew up to play in the majors, I did get pretty good. The question is how do I go from a 5-year-old t-ball’er who didn’t really care to play to the level I did achieve?
I often watch TedTalks on Saturday mornings before the house wakes up. This morning, a particular TED Talk video stroke a deep chord with me. How do my failed attempts at a professional baseball career and a TED Talk relate? As I discovered, it is about making mistakes and learning from them – a simple concept but a valuable lesson for anyone. I encourage you to watch Economist and Writer Tim Harford’s piece on Trial, Error and the God Complex.
I take a number of things away from this that I can apply to a variety of situations, and will likely spin-off into a myriad directions as my mind wanders without coffee early this morning. Fundamentally however, I recognize that this notion of the God complex has created a devastating blight, one which has infected the leadership of numerous organizations and very public arenas.
What I mean by that is that in particular, leadership of many public and private sector organizations has been infiltrated by presidents, ceo’s and the lot, each of whom are there as experts without leadership skills. In particular, public sector organizations are full of unique challenges, not the least of which is a perceived lack of funding (and in some cases an absolute lack of funding). I have often quipped that real leadership isn’t about making easy decisions, its about making difficult ones – be they financial or otherwise. I’m sure someone can Google that and recognize that someone far smarter than I said that long ago, but the essence is very true today. Bringing in subject matter experts and putting them in a position of power and ultimate authority is at the very worst a harbinger of doom. It doesn’t solve problems, it creates bigger ones.
Experts (the God’s that Harford refers to) in the moments of darkness and despair – go with what they know and narrow the scope of their decision-making matrix into a comfort zone simply because it’s always worked for them. Ultimately however, it excludes the full complexity of the situation as Harford notes. It fully eliminates the notion of trial and error to the point of minimizing risk taking behaviours, those which ultimately encourage innovation. So in our public sector organizations where innovation with restricted budgets is so key, the lack of risk taking maintains the status quo to the point of paralyzing growth, adaptation and innovation, the very thing that will help to define their significance and relevance.
I’m not lost in the fact that especially in public sector organizations, hospitals, schools, university’s etc. where budgets have narrowed over the years, there is less apatite for risk, because of a compressed financial situation and with growing demands and higher expectations. This is not an easily solved problem – which requires more than a subject matter expert to resolve. It requires unique thinking and problem solvers, it requires leadership that hire well and trust their own teams to bring about necessary change. Narrowing the focus and simply defining problems in absence of the broader picture only serves to segment issues and obscure reality by making them seem ‘easier’ to deal with.
I never got better in baseball by doing the same things repeatedly. I played different positions, I took a number of balls of the chest and struck out quite a bit. A measure of success in baseball is hitting .300 or better for the season which is failing 7 times out of 10. Our leaders require breadth of knowledge and depth of commitment to bettering their entire organizations. In my opinion, it is why sports metaphors work so well in leadership – coach’s can’t play on the field – they need to communicate well, trust in their team to do the job, accept that sometimes failing is part of the game and encourage their team to take calculated risks. As I see it, it’s the only way to improve is by failing.