Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

Coach K recently visited West Point with Team USA. A West Point graduate and basketball player under legendary Bobby Knight, Coach K is famous for many things—one of which is his leadership approach to mistakes and sub-par performance. Another academy graduate, this time from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the leader and pilot who safely landed on the Hudson River in Manhattan in 2009, shares similar views regarding mistakes and errors. Namely, mistakes can be good.

To Coach K and Sully, mistakes become opportunities to coach and learn. This, of course, requires humility and patience and some level of tolerance. Make no mistake, mistakes are tough. They are often embarrassing especially when in the public purview. They are expensive and can result in the loss of capacity, energy production, or cargo transport, just to name a few. Nobody likes to make mistakes.

Errors and mistakes have two components, and one usually dominates. The first component is accountability. A mistake, by its very nature, is a violation of a standard. When standards are violated, we know from Leadership 101 that accountability demands a response to this violation. Many leaders stop with accountability. Elite leaders move quickly to the second component of mistakes, the learning opportunity. The world’s best leaders embrace mistakes as a chance to revisit assumptions, re-think processes, and to engage in reflection on how things may be done differently or better to avoid such mistakes in the future. Leaders that take this approach are less likely to repeat mistakes.

At ELP, we’ve come to see that the most pioneering and remarkable leaders somehow do both. If forced, they tend to lean a bit more towards the learning aspect as opposed to the accountability aspect. When certain employees continually make the same or similar mistakes, the pendulum, of course, swings back to accountability. However, by and large, sensational leaders build the capacity to engage both components of a mistake to drive two important lessons—accountability, which is an immediate lesson, along with learning, which is a lasting lesson.

So, next time a clock reset occurs, a train derails, or a turnaround goes late by two days, reflect on how you approach this mistake, this faulty performance, and this error. By focusing exclusively on accountability, we build an organization of fear. By focusing on both, we have an organization aligned around standards, and more importantly, learning.

At ELP, we know how to do this. We’ve done it in our leadership development programs, our leadership of Root Cause Evaluations (RCEs), and in our best-in-class strategic planning initiative—Strategic Performance Management. So, don’t make a mistake! Engage us. Visit our website at or call one of our original founders and principals, Robin Bichy, at 703.999.5676 to learn more.