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  • Writer's pictureCory McGowan

Leader as 'No Mistakes' Hammer

Most of us have heard about or read the literature regarding the benefit of failing at things and the growth opportunity that can result from making mistakes. Leaders are encouraged to take risks and make great change, enticed by the positive lessons that await on the other side, even if things don’t go as planned.

That sounds great in theory, but the fact is that leadership can be very lonely, and it can feel very threatening to be the one making a risky decision and implementing change. And what we tend to hear about great leaders is their successes, not their mistakes.

Please indulge me a short and silly story about how this has shown up recently in my life.

We are the proud owners of a new home that we moved into several weeks ago. And what does any normal person do several weeks after moving into their dream home? He starts building projects to make it even better, of course.

My recent project took me to a local hardware store - not one of those ‘home centers’ common in Japan where they sell anything from toilet paper to impact drills to dog food. No, this place is for the pros, and so packed with tools and hardware that you have to step over things to get to what you want.

All I needed was a hammer, and boy were there hammers! But interestingly, they were in two different locations. One location had Japanese hammers, with a double head. One had the type more common in the US, with a head for hammering and a claw for pulling nails. I asked the clerk why most carpenters in Japan used the one with the double head. He explained that one reason is that the double head has one flat side for hammering nails and one slightly concave head for finishing them (fun fact!), and the other reason is that Japanese carpenters don’t pull nails. I joked to him, “So you mean they don’t make mistakes?”

Deadpan: “Hai. Sou desu. Yes, that’s right.”

Well, you can be damn sure that in that moment, I was going for the ‘no mistakes’ hammer. Of course I don’t want to be seen as the guy that pulls nails, I want to live up to my ideal of being competent and excellent and mistake free! So I took that hammer home, and literally the first nail I tried to hammer with it got bent into the wood, so I had to find a separate tool to pull it out. Which incidentally left a nice gouge in the wood in the side of my house that will be a reminder of how unhelpful my striving for perfection can be.

It’s great to try to live up to our ideals, and to try to do our work perfectly. But it is a very limiting way to show up as a leader, not to mention how exhausting it can be. There is great freedom in embracing your whole leadership, mistakes and all, but it is a hell of a lot easier if you feel supported. This is what I do with the leaders I work with.

When they are getting ready to step into something that feels risky, we get super clear on what the vision is, and the outcome they want - what inspires them about this initiative? When things are under way and get messy, we celebrate (stubs toe and shouts, “Hooray!”), working out what the invitation is in the plan not going as expected, how can they adjust to a new possible outcome? And if it becomes a total flop, we look for the gift in that result - what are the lessons learned? How can what appears to be a bad result on the surface be turned into a great one?

Trying to lead as a ‘no mistakes hammer’ can be very limiting. Reach out if you’d like to work on how you can move beyond that to a much more free and expansive approach.

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