The joy of making mistakes - ex Chief Inspector of Prisons shares his leadership insights

Posted on October 21, 2016

'People who never make mistakes never make anything. Leaders should not only be assessed by the successes they achieve, but how they handle their failures too. Social leaders should not be afraid to fail'.

This slightly counter intuitive statement was made by Prof. Nick Hardwick, who shared his leadership journey at Clore Social’s recent Leaders Now breakfast event. 

Nick Hardwick was HM Chief Inspector of Prisons between 2010-16, and previously the first Chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Having spent the first half of his career in the voluntary sector, he worked with young offenders for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, young homeless people for Centrepoint and refugees and asylum seekers for the Refugee Council. He was awarded a CBE in 2010.

The topic of Nick’s talk was one which he has a lot of experience of: making mistakes. If you never make mistakes you are not trying things hard enough was the central message of the talk - and it seemed to be one that resonated with a room full of social sector leaders.

Often we think that tasks prove to be difficult because of our own inadequacy or inability. But, as Nick shared, things are difficult simply because they are meant to be difficult. If you are doing the right things, you will inevitably find yourself making mistakes. “We are too intolerant of failure” said Nick, speaking of leaders across different sectors.

But making mistakes is only half the story. Good leadership is demonstrated in being able to deal with the errors made. “The rule of holes is to stop digging”, Nick reflected, “and to own up when a mistake is made”.

Unfortunately, as Nick pointed out, the bigger the mistake, the harder it is to accept it. As a result, efforts are often directed into proving that an error wasn’t made, rather than correcting it. Leaders in every sector often fall into this trap, but covering up is often worse than the mistake itself, and it is always better to own up to the misstep made.

Great leaders use the help of the people around them to identify errors and these will often take the shape of our opponents. Although Nick has experienced this first hand in the public sector, of which people are quick to condemn, those voices are often right, and a good leader should try to consider these rather than be defensive.

“There are three rules regarding mistakes”, Nick concludes, “Number one - make them. Number two - be prepared to deal with them when they happen. And finally -  when they do occur, have the courage to identify them and put them right!”. Important lessons for leaders of a sector which often finds itself in crisis.

Leaders Now is a new event series for social sector leaders. Each month we invite speakers from inside and beyond the sector to share their leadership journeys and encourage debate at the House of St Barnabas. Sign up to our newsletter and look out on our website for news about the 2017 events.

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