Leaders Who Embrace Employee Mistakes

My 2-year-old nephew is part acrobat and part superhero hybrid (a delectable challenging mix of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, & E.B. of the Hop movie fame). He has the sweetest puppy dog eyes (all bias is noted and ignored … respectfully) and is 99% fearless. The remaining 1% is stubbornly held by a complicated fear of dogs.

One morning on his way to school with his father setting a quick pace on account that they were running behind schedule, he chose to exit his home using a move that would most certainly have received a standing ovation from acrobats and superheroes the world over. He took a flying summersault leap from the top of the stairs. What resulted was a whole lot of crying and bruised knees but thankfully no broken bones or quease inducing gushers. My brother had two choices. He could either discipline my nephew for doing something he knew he was not supposed to or he could focus on the spectacular nature of the summersault. He went with the latter and definitely earned all the brownie points and then some. What could have been a tear drenched sweater sleeve moment turned into a confidence inspiring teachable moment.

This got me thinking how often we as leaders focus on the mistakes that team members make as opposed to the opportunities for learning and growth represented therein.

Great leaders allow their employees the freedom to make mistakes. They know that even their very best employees will make mistakes. Their focus will be on ensuring that their employees own their mistakes, fix them, learn from them and put safeguards in place to ensure the same mistake will not be repeated gain.

Still not convinced about giving your employees the freedom to make mistakes. Lets take a walk down memory lane and check out a few mistakes that led to a few of the world’s greatest inventions.

Corn Flakes were supposed to prevent masturbation.

thAnti-masturbation dieticians Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and William Keith Kellogg believed that a clean, healthy diet of plainer foods like cereal was key to preventing sexual urges. So, they began experimenting with granola as a non-stimulating replacement for the average diet. One day, the brothers left a batch of wheat unattended to go address some other matter. When they returned, the wheat was stale, but they attempted to roll it out anyway, resulting in a flat, thin flake.

The Slinky was supposed to hold equipment on naval ships.


A navy engineer by the name of Richard James was working to create a meter to monitor the horsepower output of ships during World War II, when one of the springs used to stabilize the meter fell off the table and continued to “walk” away. The idea to make a children’s toy out of the wandering spring came to him almost immediately, and in 1945 his first Slinky was complete.

Coca-Cola was supposed to be a medical remedy.


Desperately trying (and failing) to concoct a medical remedy for his headaches, pharmacist John Pemberton dumped together a bunch of ingredients into a kettle, in the process creating a recipe that still remains a secret today.


Post-it Notes were supposed to be a super adhesive.


In 1968, while trying to come up with a extra strong adhesive at the 3M company, scientist Spencer Silver managed to create just the opposite: a very weak adhesive that would peel off when removed from any surface. No one thought there was any use for such a product, until another scientist, Art Fry, realized that the little pieces of paper made great bookmarks for his church songs without leaving residue on the page.

Potato chips were the result of an angry chef.

potato chip

You can thank one picky, dissatisfied customer in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., for the invention of this glorious snack food. In 1853, after a customer repeatedly sent his order of fried potatoes back to the waiter, complaining that they were too soggy and thick, the New York restaurant’s chef George Crum was fed up, and so he took the request for a thinner potato quite literally — cutting the potatoes into thin slices, frying them and covering them in salt. Behold, “Saratoga Chips.”

Play-Doh was supposed to be wallpaper cleaner.


Play-Doh first originated as a wallpaper cleaner produced and sold by Noah McVicker’s soap company, Kutol Products. Over time, the moldable substance became very popular among school teachers, who used it for classroom arts and crafts. Not until years later did the McVickers decide to re-market the product for children.

Champagne was bottled wine that didn’t ferment properly.

champagne bottle

Who can actually take credit for originally inventing champagne has always been a topic of debate — but it might actually have just been the weather. The climate was changing significantly during the 1490s, which had a dramatic effect on wine fermentation. Rather than the grape juice completely fermenting, the drop in weather caused the yeast to stop working too early and remain dormant until spring, when a second round of fermentation would take place. This gap ultimately led to the formation of carbon dioxide in the wine, or as we know it, the bubbles!

Kotex was supposed to be used for healing and dressing wounds during World War I.


th-1Originally known as “Cellucotton,” these wadding pads were used during World War I to dress the wounds of soldiers. However, many Red Cross nurses found that the product also made great feminine care protection pads. In 1920, “Kotex” was born.


Artificial sweetener was discovered by a chemist who didn’t wash his hands.

artificial sweetner

Perhaps one of the only times not washing your hands led to something useful? In 1879, after a long day of working with coal tar, chemist Constantin Fahlberg came home to have dinner with his wife without washing his hands first. While eating his meal, Fahlberg noticed that everything he put in his mouth had a very sweet taste, and discovered that the saccharin on his hands was responsible.

Chewing gum was supposed to be a natural latex.

chewing gum

Overwhelmed with frustration that his attempts to create a rubber replacement out of natural latex were unsuccessful, Thomas Adams put a piece in his mouth and noticed the flexible material was surprisingly very enjoyable to chew on. He began adding flavors and by 1888, the name “chewing gum” was coined.

Popsicles were supposed to be soda pop.


thIn 1905, Frank Epperson, then 11, was experimenting with different ways of making homemade soda pop when he accidentally left a batch sitting outside with a stir stick left in it. Temperatures dropped overnight, and the next morning he went outside to find the surprise frozen treat.

Chocolate chip cookies were a dessert recipe gone wrong. 

chocolate chip cookie

Never has a baking recipe gone oh so wrong, but oh so right. In 1930, Toll House Inn co-owner Ruth Graves Wakefield of Whitman, Mass., was baking a chocolate dessert when she apparently ran out of her regularly used chocolate and had to dump in Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate chips instead. The chips did not melt as planned, but Wakefield’s disappointment did not last for long. In 1939, Nestlé introduced “Nestlé Toll House Real Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels.”

It’s not the making of a mistake that is generally the problem; it’s what you do with it afterward that really counts. The following 8 steps will help you analyze the mistake quickly and efficiently:

  1. Accept that it happened and can’t be changed.
  2. Know there is always something to learn from it.
  3. Look to understand it and the factors that caused it.
  4. How could you have recognized the mistake earlier?
  5. How can you avoid the mistake next time?
  6. Are there similar things that might have a related mistake to avoid?
  7. What has changed now to ensure that mistake doesn’t reoccur?
  8. Who else should know about this and learn from it?

So as you toast the new year with some champagne or Coca-cola, munch on some potatoe chips or chocolate-chip cookies and distract the kids (or yourself) with popsicles, play doh and that wondrous slinky, make a note on your post-it that reminds you that mistakes take learning out of the training room or training manual and into real life and life is the very best teacher we all have.

Related Posts:

1. Don’t Be Afraid To Fall



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