Learning from my Mistakes

Leadership is exciting and rewarding. But it isn’t easy. A couple of months ago, I blogged about three essential leadership practices here.  The last one about shining a light on my mistakes so I could learn from them. I’ve made a few mistakes since then, and I’m learning. Here’s my list…so far!

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via Compfight cc

1. Understand the power of my words

How many times have you heard or read that email is not an ideal form of communication, simply because you can’t convey all your meaning?  Brian Woodland, Director of Communications and Community Relations at Peel District School Board, ranks all communication in order of effectiveness. What’s the top of the list?  Face to face.  Where does email fall?  Pretty far down the list.

I’m careful with email. I make sure my format is easy to read, and I always check a message at least twice before sending. Usually, that’s enough.  But mistakes happen.  As a superintendent, I underestimated how much some readers will scrutinize individual words within an email.  And the thing with email is that there is no opportunity for a discussion. My learning here is to keep messages short. If I need a longer communication, then it must be reserved for a face to face or phone conversation.

2. Respect the power of a previous culture

Trust is everything. Without it, we have little influence as leaders, as friends, or as family. I’ve written often about trust in this space, in particular here and here. I’m building trust with the people I work with through honesty, transparency and follow through. I believe in the combination of character and competence to build trust (from Steven M. R. Covey).

Sometimes, no matter how much work you are doing to build that trust, you can unconsciously sabotage it by using words that meant anything but trust in the previous culture. When that happens, I need to explain and then demonstrate, by my actions, what my meaning of those words or phrases are. It takes time, but it’s worth it.

3. Be true to myself

Taking on a new role can be intimidating. I’ve received lots of excellent advice about how to present myself or even what to say in my first meetings with colleagues or the public. Sometimes we think we need to put on a face that is not our own. Maybe we use words we wouldn’t usually, or we project a different tone from our normal one. I have discovered through my years as a school principal that my true voice is the best one. It’s the one that others believe and the one that fosters trust.

Even so, I find I am more likely to put on another face when I have an unpleasant conversation with an angry person. I might think I need to come across a little stronger or be more stern. But guess what? That doesn’t work very well.  Staying true to myself, trying to listen, and delivering bad news sensitively and gently is always the best way.

Todd Whitaker‘s Dealing with Difficult Parents (and with Parents in Difficult Situations) remains one of my go-to leadership books. One of the chapters is about how to deliver bad news. “The worse the news, the more thought and effort we need to put into delivering it, ” says Whitaker. I’ve gone back to his ideas so I can be true to myself.

As I learn more about how to be the best leader I can, I value the feedback I’ve received from caring colleagues and friends. Do you have anything to add?

5 comments on “Learning from my Mistakes

  1. adunsige says:

    Sue, I love your willingness to be so honest and up front! You’re a great model for others to do so as well. I’ve known you as a fellow EdCamp Hamilton Committee Member, a principal, and now as a superintendent, and I really like how despite changing roles, YOU haven’t changed. You do stay true to yourself, and I think that’s so important!

    I think that admitting our mistakes can be one of the hardest things we do (I know that this is the case for me, even though I continue to work at doing so). How would you encourage others to be willing to admit to and learn from mistakes? What are the benefits and/or drawbacks in doing so privately versus publicly (i.e., on a blog)? (This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I’d love to know your thoughts.)

    Thanks, as always, for a wonderful post!
    Aviva

    • sjdunlop says:

      Hmm, I don’t have a complete answer. When we blog, we take a risk. Is it any riskier to admit mistakes publicly? I am conscious of my position and how much I can say, as I know you are. I blog for reflection. Why do you?

      • adunsiger says:

        Good question, Sue! I think there’s a couple of reasons that I blog. Often it’s for reflection. Sometimes it’s for feedback. And sometimes it’s to help me gain a better understanding of a different perspective with the hope that as I explore my viewpoints, others might chime in with theirs. It can be hard, as our positions do make it difficult to share everything, but often what we do share can help with that reflection process (and our personal growth).

        Aviva

  2. Kristi bishop says:

    I’m intrigued by your idea of embracing, or at least acknowledging, the previous culture. I’m not sure what that looks like or how far you go to meet it if it isn’t a good fit for you. I also thnk I need to out the book you mention on my reading list. Thanks!

  3. Royan Lee says:

    I too wish we were better at admitting to mistakes, especially as I believe it is predominantly a learned behaviour, in which we follow the lead of others, so the ripple (to go with your blog’s metaphor) will extend to our young people and they will learn that admitting to one’s mistakes is not only the honest thing to do, but is actually incredibly gratifying.

    It’s doubly refreshing to hear you write about this in such a transparent way as I have seen with my own eyes the power that someone in your formal leadership position has in setting the tone for a growth mindset. You are modelling this paradigm rather than simply touting it.

    By the way, the new blog design is amazing!

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