When most of us think back to an agonizing mistake, the last thing we want to do is tell the world about it. This is especially so for those mistakes that still sting.
But that’s exactly what happened last year when I moderated a panel of powerful women and heard a particularly courageous and personal lesson from political powerhouse Lynn H. Yeakel, today the founder and co-chair of Vision 2020. When asked about a career mistake, Yeakel explained—to a rapt room of up-and-coming women—that in 1992 when she ran for U.S. Senate, she didn’t “run as herself”.
While she had won the primary, and was very close to unseating the powerful incumbent, her campaign advisers convinced her that she had to stick to the messages the polls showed were most important to voters … Said Yeakel, “They told me how to dress, what to drive…and in the end, I lost my grounding. It took a long time after that campaign for me to regain my sense of self and my personal integrity.”
I was astonished then, and I continue to be impressed and grateful to women like Yeakel, who expose these painful gremlins and offer them as gifts to young women. The key reason? Among top ranking women executives, these confessions are simply not that common.
When leaders don’t talk about their mistakes, they indirectly reinforce the perception that women who make it to top ranks have perfect judgment, had “golden paths” to leadership, or were never rejected or told “No”. A young woman, who is already skeptical that a leadership role is a plausible career goal, now sees a Grand Canyon between herself and a woman leader. She might think, “She can do it – but I’m not like her.”
Jessica Bacal, the author of a smart new book, Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong, saw this dynamic among successful women and decided to do something about it. Being one of Bacal’s 25 lucky interview subjects, she probed each of us about those mistakes that ended up teaching us the most.
I shared with Bacal my bumpy path out of social work school—where I took jobs that felt like the wrong fit—out of a fear of admitting that there was a mismatch. I also talked about the many “good-girlisms” that kept me stuck in a line of work that was flat-out wrong for me. When I finally got around to silencing those good-girlisms and indulged my ambition of focusing on working women, I was more contented than ever before. But boy was the road to getting there scary, uncomfortable, and long. My hope was that a story like this could push a new graduate to take control of their situation sooner than I did.
If learning happens through trial and error, then you need to try, and more importantly, you need to err. So noted a striking article by Fast Company called “Failure Is The Only Option, If Success Is The End Goal.” The piece warns against one other consequence of sidestepping our most searing failures: when we don’t talk about mistakes, we’re much more likely to repeat them. If we keep our mistakes tucked away in the dark, they gain more power over us.
Certainly, mistakes come in all shapes, sizes and levels of severity. And it’s not a question of if you’ll make them, it’s when. So, here’s an idea: next time you take a misstep, instead of carrying on with an emotional apology and wasting your time lugging around heavy remorse, put it on display. Let that mistake become of service to you and someone else. Tell your mentee about it. Talk about it with a peer or bring up your learning in a meeting with your team. I can personally vouch that this is the most helpful—and liberating—way to own that mistake.
When recovering from a mistake, did you put it out there? How have you helped yourself move through the process?
This article first appeared on Be Leaderly.