In the fifth chapter of Facing the Demands of Leadership, I write about the leadership skill of “learning from our mistakes.” Let me tell you a personal story about this.
In college I had a “falling out” of sorts with a friend. For years after college I didn’t see him and it bothered me that we never resolved our issue. But try as I might, I couldn’t muster up the courage to call him to talk about it. So I kept putting it off but it never really went away. It haunted me and I felt stuck in my shame.
One day I finally decided to send him an e-mail to apologize and get the conversation going. Soon after that we met up and were able to talk and catch up on life. And a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.
It wasn’t too late to apologize and to restore our friendship. But for so many years I avoided the conversation. I figured, “What’s the point in bringing it up? The past is the past. What’s done is done.”
I was so wrong. In the past decade I’ve learned how it’s usually not too late to revisit mistakes of the past. It’s actually a skill I’ve worked on developing which is to “go a second round” or to “circle back” with people when I don’t communicate or make decisions as well as I would want during the first time around.
Just this past year, a good friend of mine asked whether I could travel to his wedding. I was overwhelmed with life at the time so I told him, “I’ll try my best but I can’t plan that far ahead yet.”
After the dust settled in my life, I realized that I didn’t like how my response might have sounded to my friend. I wish I had communicated that I cared for him deeply and supported him fully, and that I would do everything in my power to try to make it to his wedding. But it was too late … right?
No! Instead of beating myself up for it, I set up a meeting with my friend to tell him, “Hey, back when you asked whether I could make it to your wedding, I didn’t feel satisfied with my response to you. It didn’t communicate the depth of my care and commitment to you as one of my best friends. If I had to do it again this is what I would say instead …”
And I expressed my care for him. I tried again.
He appreciated it. I’ll tell you what – it didn’t seem “too late” for him at all! He was glad I “circled back” with him.
These days I try to circle back quite often with people. Not obsessively, but with the bigger misses in my leadership and in the most significant relationships in my life. And it’s been so rewarding and relieving to not let shame “shackle” me into passivity. I even had a conversation with someone from ten years ago in my past!
I’ve learned that the most effective way to overcome shame and to grow in the capacity to “circle back” is to practice doing it with the support of other people. If you want to explore in greater depth the barriers that keep us from learning from our mistakes, be sure to check out my leadership guide Facing the Demands of Leadership.