“Senior leaders who expect perfection and do not look at mistakes or shortfalls as developmental opportunities will soon create a zero-defects command climate that will stifle initiative and creativity, fragment teamwork within the organization, and stunt the development of subordinates, which all serves to hinder organizational effectiveness.”

Leadership Lessons From West Point

I am the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Dakota State University in a small, quaint town of approximately 6,000 people. Off the interstate, within an hour drive of major cities lies Brookings (home of South Dakota State University) and Sioux Falls (University of Sioux Falls, Augustana, and the Sanford Hospital and Complex).

It seems like every day a new opportunity to teach my student athletes a lesson occurs. The athletes are young. They will make mistakes. It’s a huge part of the maturation process of a young person. Some mistakes are bigger than others but those are the ones with the most to learn from.

When they make mistakes, the easiest thing to do (and what most people in leadership positions default to) is to punish/discipline the person without using the event as a learning opportunity. It takes time, effort, and energy to do this day after day with every student athlete. But the payoff is tremendous.

Day after day, week after week, month after month I enjoy the privilege to see the positive changes from my student athletes. It doesn’t come without frustration, however. But, the people that need the most help are the ones who make all the energy and efforts worth it when they turn the corner on the maturation process.

Let me give you an example of a major and minor mistake and how I use it as a learning opportunity.

Major: Fight breaks out among athletes and is quickly diffused. I talk one of the athletes about the importance of walking away from these type of confrontational events. In regards to running his mouth, I asked him to picture the football team stopping the opponent on 3rd down only to get a 15 yard penalty and automatic first down. The momentum shifts, the other team scores, and the other team gains confidence. Our team gets frustrated with the stupid penalty, loses momentum, and eventually loses the game. I mentioned to him that everything can be used as a learning experience and how being mentally tough in a situation like that means walking away.

Minor: Team fails to put away equipment in the time allotted by failing to work together. I relate this to how just because one person finishes his own area up that the job isn’t done until everything is done. It is not enough to do your job. You must do your job and then see if your family—your brothers need any help. Football is the ultimate team sport and little things like this can drive the point home to the athletes about the importance of teamwork. Talking about teamwork is fine, but giving them opportunities to display and then talking about how it went afterwards is more beneficial.

Are you a leader? Do you use mistakes and shortcomings as opportunities to learn? If not, why not? You are not developing the people you serve if you choose not to do this simple—but not easy task.

I challenge you to adopt this rule of life and reap the benefits of positive development of the people around you. Create leaders among your ranks and let them lead others. That is the ultimate goal.


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