by Michael Holland    

In 1994 I made a classic management mistake.  It involved a very stressful job, a struggling team, and two bags of marshmallows.  The short version of the story is that a consistently tardy team member to critical team meetings received a barrage of marshmallows when he arrived late again to our meeting.  While the stress released for the reminder of managers on my team was very welcome, the resulting cost far outweighed the momentary fun.  In a split second, a seemingly harmless idea went from great fun to a horrible realization of just how stupid the idea was.

Some of the best wisdom opportunities arrive on the heels of mistakes.  We can gain leadership wisdom if we take steps to solidify the things we learn when opportunities arrive.   Consider these 3 actions to solidify learning from your inopportune leadership decisions:

  • Own it.  Winners take responsibility; losers blame others.  I met with the tardy manager and fell completely on my sword, letting him know that I had made a tremendous mistake in embarrassing him.  After a long discussion, he accepted my apology and painfully admitted he hadn’t realized the impact his tardiness had on the rest of the team.
  • Advertise the Ownership.  I met with all managers who were at the meeting, taking full ownership of the mistake and explaining why it was a mistake.  I took the time to talk through the leadership lesson I was learning in real time.
  • Capture the Wisdom.  20 plus years later, I still remember the moments just before and just after the carnage from the marshmallows.  The video plays vividly in slow motion, revealing the rise in energy and the great fall of personal respect.  The replay is clear because I took the time to lock it away in my brain to make sure the memory would be a lesson learned.

You will make mistakes as a leader: that’s a given.  How well you react to and recover from your mistakes will determine how great or poor your leadership will be in the future.

Learn well to lead well.

Coaching Thoughts – For You and Your Peers

  • Why was the marshmallow barrage a bad idea? What might have been a better way to handle the issue with the habitually tardy team member?
  • Think of a time when you (or someone you know) made a big leadership mistake.
    • How did you handle the repercussions?
    • How would the points listed in this Leadership Learning Moment have helped you better respond to the situation?