The Power, and Difficulty, of Executive Learning

Of all the skills and traits we expect of our leaders, none of them is more important than the ability to learn from one's mistakes.
March 7, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
By Russ Linden  |  Contributor
A management consultant, educator and author

Of all the skills and traits we expect of our leaders, none of them is more important than the ability to learn from one's mistakes. Here are two examples of leaders who did just that:

1.On April 17, 1961, in the hope that the Cuban people would rise up against Castro, 1,300 members of a CIA-supported Cuban exile force stormed the beaches of Cuba at an area called the Bay of Pigs. The plan turned out to be foolish and ended in failure. One-hundred and fourteen exiles were killed, and almost 1,200 became Fidel Castro's prisoners. The invasion quickly became a foreign policy debacle barely three months into John F. Kennedy's presidency. Secretary of State Dean Rusk later wrote that he had done the president a disservice by not voicing his deep concerns about the invasion during the planning phase (several of his associates had the same reaction).

Kennedy faced enormous pressures after the disaster -- to immediately fire someone on the planning team, to blame his predecessor (the plan had been hatched during the Eisenhower years), to point to the Communist menace in Cuba. Instead, he held a news conference and accepted responsibility for the plan. Moreover, he asked an Army general to study what had gone wrong in the planning and execution of the operation and report back to him. Significantly, he told the general not to spare him (Kennedy) in his report.

The subsequent report included candid feedback about Kennedy's role in the failure. For instance, Kennedy's frequent presence in the planning meetings apparently created an atmosphere in which people told him what they thought he wanted to hear (the phrase "groupthink" was coined by a Harvard academic who studied the incident).

Kennedy learned from the experience, and 18 months later, when the U.S. stood on the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis, he put those lessons to excellent use. At that time, he assigned his brother the task of conducting many of the senior-level meetings, insisted on receiving more than one option, brought in outsiders to give fresh perspectives, and refused to see things in black-and-white terms. History has shown how wisely Kennedy handled the crisis, and how much he had learned.

2.Today, Senator Hillary Clinton is running for president. She is being dogged by members of her own party who insist that she apologize for her vote in October, 2002, authorizing the president to use force against Iraq. Clinton refuses to do so, and there is an ongoing debate about her position and unwillingness to say she made a mistake.

But as presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin points out, the question isn't whether Mrs. Clinton should apologize or not. The real issue is, what did she learn from the vote she cast? Did she ask the right questions at the time? Did she hear a variety of views from her advisors?

In today's "gotcha" political environment, many leaders become enormously cautious, afraid that the wrong word or action will infuriate important constituencies. What many of them miss is that the American people are reasonably forgiving when they see a leader who acknowledges a mistake, learns from it, and changes as a result (John Kennedy's approval ratings shot up to 83 percent after he took the blame for the Bay of Pigs!). The question isn't one of making apologies, but whether the person learns from mistakes and helps his or her assistants learn as well.

And how can leaders learn on the job -- with the huge pressures, endless interruptions, and limited time they have to do so? There are many ways; this is just a starter list:

  • Include some strong people on your immediate staff who think differently than you do. Insist on several options when important decisions are to be made, and listen carefully to those who don't agree with you.
  • When considering an important change or new policy, always remember to ask, "and then what?" What are some unintended consequences, and can they be managed? Apparently, nobody in the Bush White House asked this question in the run-up to the Iraq War (nor, for that matter, was the question asked when LBJ ordered hundreds of thousands of troops to Vietnam).
  • Conduct after-action reviews following important activities. Create a safe environment in which those who worked on the effort are free to analyze what went well and what didn't, and how to improve next time.
  • Create a small group of trusted advisers who have good judgment, don't work for you, and have the maturity to be candid with you. Periodically ask them what they're observing in your organization.

Executive learning requires discipline and courage, not spin and defensiveness. It is one of a leader's most difficult tasks. It is also one of the most important.