How important are mistakes?  This question has been playing through my mind over the last few weeks while working on a conference presentation on ‘Disruptive Thinking’ and the work with a number of our clients on cultivating a ‘Culture of Accountability’.  In addition, as a father of two young girls I have been considering the role of mistakes in my daughter’s development and our response as parents to their mistakes.

The current literature and research on anxiety disorders indicates that anxiety disorders, particularly in children, is on the rise.  Perhaps one of the most significant contributing factors is the way we parent, either not providing an environment where our children are allowed to make mistakes, or our over-reaction to mistakes.  I observe similar traits in organisations.

Perhaps most compelling is the research and literature around the impact of a ‘growth mindset’ on individual and team performance outcomes.  A fundamental driver of a ‘Growth Mindset’ is the reward of effort/process rather than outcome as well as the positive experience of ‘not knowing’. 

I believe we need to re-evaluate how we respond to mistakes, as both parents and leaders, and consider if we need to re-think how best to harness the power of a mistake.

Culture of Experimentation and Curiosity (and ultimately Innovation)

I observe many organisations having a focus on Innovation, and even a value of ‘Innovation’.  The greatest error in this focus is that innovation is in fact an outcome of ‘experimentation’ and making mistakes.  If organisations truly wished to implement a culture of innovation and live and breathe innovation, then they are better off creating a culture of experimentation and rewarding ‘having a go’. 

“Create a Culture of Experimentation”

How many organisations do you know of who proactively provide funding and support for an ‘idea’ without first doing an over analysis of risk and potential outcomes?  Most probably very few.  One of our clients does provide funding for ideas, and this same organisation has demonstrated incredible capacity to very quickly adapt to the changing external disruptions and survive. 

The number of successful ideas is absolutely proportional to the number of initial ideas generated, and therefore also the number of mistakes. 

The number of initial ideas generated is a function of how much curiosity we encourage.  Do we challenge status quo enough?  Do we ask ‘Why’ we do things the way we do enough?


  • Incorporate ‘Experiment’ into our daily language
  • Ask your direct reports the ‘experiment’ with an idea
  • Reward and provide feedback on the effort put into the experiment (regardless of the outcome)
  • Ask the question: “How could we experiment with a different way of doing this?”

Wise Decisions

A ‘Growth Mindset’ is essentially a mindset that rigorously evaluates and reflects on feedback received from an outcome or performance, and then identifies key learning and areas for improvement.  Wisdom is the application of a ‘Growth Mindset’ to decision making.  My preferred definition of a wise person or wisdom is as follows:

  • Meticulous and honest reflection identifying both successes and mistakes
  • An articulation of the mistakes and identified learning
  • Application of the learning to make a better decision on the next occasion

I fundamentally believe that it is not the most experienced or knowledgeable people who are wise (I have observed very unwise experienced individuals), but instead those people, regardless of level of experience and knowledge, who are prepared to have a go, make mistakes, and then make better decisions based on the learning from the mistake.

Perhaps the most impactful way to establish this approach is to provide people with a positive experience of making a mistake or not knowing. 

I observe both leaders and parents over-reacting to mistakes made by their direct reports or children respectively.  This over-reaction sends a clear message that mistakes are ‘bad’.  We need to be far more disciplined with the way that we react to mistakes, and ensure that our response if measured and considered.


  • Manage our own reaction to other’s mistakes i.e. do not over-react, but rather under-react
  • Practice articulating your own mistakes to your team
  • Instead of asking ‘what went wrong?’ ask ‘what mistake did we make?’
  • Ask: “How will our decision be different next time based on the learning from our mistake?”

Inspire Trust, Commitment and Passion

A mistake offers a huge potential opportunity if we have the courage to take the opportunity.  However, the opportunity comes with a cost.  The cost is admitting the mistake.

Admitting a mistake invokes in many instances any number of potential negative emotions, such as: embarrassment, disappointment, shame, guilt or frustration.  It is this very negative emotion that is the reason why so many of us avoid admitting a mistake. 

I fundamentally believe that the pathway to trust, commitment and passion requires us to pass through emotions of disappointment, embarrassment, and even shame.  As leaders we need to become comfortable leading people through mistakes.  This is not just a ‘quick-fix’ but instead leading our teams to accept responsibility and own the mistake, followed by then focusing on the future and what we need to have learnt from the mistake.

Acknowledgement of mistakes generates authenticity and genuineness. Admitting mistakes creates clarity of self. The courage to take responsibility for a mistake creates the foundation of future success.  Articulating mistakes engenders trust in others and describing the learning one has taken from a mistake inspires learning and demonstrates wisdom.


  • Share the learnings and insights you have had from your mistakes
  • Fully own your mistakes and do not blame or rationalise away your responsibility
  • Trust that your mistakes, if acknowledged and owned, are a foundation for your future success
  • Lead your teams through mistakes (rather than ‘fix or rationalise)


Perhaps we need to take a moment to reflect on the following (and I encourage you to do so right now):

  • How did you react to your son or daughters last mistake? Was it in a way that generates a growth mind-set, or as it more anxiety inducing?
  • How did you react to the last time one identified a mistake from one of your direct reports? Did your reaction increase experimentation of decrease experimentation?
  • When last did you make a mistake, and how to do you react? What was your own internal words to yourself?

The next time you observe a mistake, either by yourself or another, take a moment to consider how you might leverage the mistake to generate a better outcome.

I look forward to your comments and thoughts.

About the author

Gregory Bayne is one of the Directors of Total Leader and Coach Solutions Australia.  Greg works with senior and executive leaders assisting them to make shifts in the way they work, the way they think and the way they live their lives to become better leaders, colleagues and team members. Greg has a particular focus on assisting leaders create a culture or accountability and high performance. His expertise and knowledge is around building and developing a culture of accountability, leading high performing teams, and getting the most out of people to deliver the highest standards of work. We cultivate sustainable behavioural change in individuals, teams and organisations to drive a performance culture.