THE CONTEXT

Among the challenges of modern business, the least understood and the most important is leadership. Though well-intentioned and supposedly well trained, leaders, relatively unskilled in the nuances of human interaction, create a swirl of stress, uncertainty and threat that debilitates their staff (and often themselves) and depresses the bottom line.

We address this challenge head-on by declaring that a first step in the “revolution in thinking” emphasized by Taiichi Ohno, founder of the Toyota Production System, is to help leaders deeply understand that:

1. Their shortcomings as leaders are the source of much of the inefficiencies that binds organizations
2. They can and should clean up those inefficiencies
3. They can and should stop creating them.

Mistake-Proofing Leadership helps leaders who apply its philosophy and tools overcome their leadership shortcomings and begin stemming the seemingly endless deluge of violated expectations and damaging interactions. When no longer buried in and over-stressed by inefficiencies, they will have ample time to increase their contribution to the bottom line.

There is a critical second step in the revolution of thinking, however, recognizing the equal importance of Toyota’s two Lean Thinking pillars, continuous improvement and respect for people.

Classic continuous improvement focuses foremost on process improvement, and secondarily on developing employees so they can further improve processes. What is done poorly or not at all is people interactions separate from processes. Respect for people should emphasize using Lean principles and concepts to improve how people interact with one another.

Continuous improvement is reducing waste and respect for people is enhancing people. Continuous improvement relies on identifying and eliminating the classic seven wastes. Our approach uses the seminal thinking that the respect for people pillar rests on enhancing seven people assets.

Only when leaders identify and enhance each of these people assets can an organization expect to thrive in a continuous improvement environment. Our focus is on leadership, but we will touch on all of the seven people assets.

Our approach uses storytelling, drama, struggle and triumph to help readers see and feel the power of concepts that go beyond anything currently available in leadership development.

Our intention is that you will change your current leadership in many ways and will:

• Want to become a true leader rather than remain a leader in name only
• Have a greater appreciation for and accountability to those who follow you
• Knowingly move toward perfect leadership
• Unleash the leadership of those you lead
• Use bundles of appropriate behaviors to mistake-proof your leadership

Mistake-Proofing Leadership has been inspired by true leaders, great writers and insightful colleagues. We are optimistic about the world and honor leaders who solve problems currently thought to be unsolvable.
We encourage leaders in any endeavor to apply the lessons of this book and thereby join us in our quest to improve the world. Our sincere intent is that your employees are better for having worked with you.
We hope you find yourself in our story and become one of the heroes.

 

1

THE INVITATION

I ripped open the envelope. The letter inside was more important to me than the one from Harvard or the one from Oxford. I was younger in those days, eager to learn, ripe for new experiences. Now, older and accomplished, I should have been calm, more dignified, but I wasn’t. I was as excited as a new dad and almost as scared. This was a huge opportunity and one that also included the prospect of revisiting past mistakes, some of which still make me wince.

The first words said it all, “We’re delighted to offer you a space in the next Mistake-Proofing Leadership Collaborative.”

I’m the CEO of Rowdell Software, a company that customizes off-the-shelf software for small and medium-sized businesses. We’re making money, growing at a good rate, have low employee turnover, and I’d like to keep it that way. A friend of mine, Hal, who owns a half-dozen furniture stores, told me about something called Collective Wisdom, Inc. I thought it was similar to other groups such as The Executive Committee and I told him, “No, thanks.” The idea of business people getting together with a facilitator to talk business is okay with me; it just doesn’t mesh with my idea of practicality. I find most such conversations useful for about half an hour and seminars good for maybe an hour. By then things get repeated or off track and I get antsy. At the same time, I know some people who are geniuses whose brains I’d love to pick. My experience has taught me a lot, but there is much more to learn. If somehow only the most helpful or important material was covered, I’d go much more often than I do, but that’s rarely what happens.

Hal said, “Wait a minute, don’t go saying ‘no’ before you know what you’re saying ‘no’ to.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m listening.”

“Here’s the deal. Collective Wisdom is two guys with a great idea.” Hal paused, seemingly for dramatic effect and pointed his index finger at me. “The idea is that businesses are run by smart people who have learned a lot in school and on the job, yet these smart, experienced people still make monumental mistakes. Right?”

“I’m proof of that,” I agreed.

“Then you should ask yourself, how come? Why do you make mistakes? Why does anyone make a mistake?”

“You’re asking me why people make mistakes?”

“Yeah.”

“Hal, it sounds suspiciously like you’re beginning to make a sales pitch, but I’ll bite. People, even the best business leaders, are human and humans make mistakes. Is that the answer you’re looking for?”

“Yes. Now think of your doctor. Say you have to go in for delicate surgery. Would you be okay if your doctor was only human and made a mistake? Of course not! Your surgeon making a mistake would be unexpected and terrible.”

“Okay.”

“So what these two guys do is apply to business what works in medicine. And apply what works in some businesses to all businesses.”

“Keep going.”

“The approach used when your surgeon cuts into you is what they call ‘best practices.’ This ‘evidence-based medicine’ is the gold standard, what research has shown is the best method currently known based on clinical evidence. They record everything they do, share results and constantly improve their techniques. Now, let’s say you have a heart attack.”

“This sure is a fun discussion.”

As usual, Hal ignored me and continued without pause. “If you had a heart attack, your doctor would treat you with what they call a treatment ‘bundle’ which are all those things known to improve an outcome. You have a heart attack; they know the six things that are supposed to be the absolute best treatment. If they do only five of the six you don’t get as good a result. The guys I’m talking about teach leadership bundles.”

“Intriguing.”

“There’s more.”

“Keep going.”

“You know about the success of the Toyota Management System, where they’ve worked for 50 years to eliminate all types of waste. They also work toward perfecting their production processes by using what they call poka yoke, self check and successive check.”

“I know about Toyota. I like the approach.”

“Well, these guys have applied it to leadership. I took their Mistake-Proofing Leadership collaborative. It was fantastic. It was all about how I could mistake-proof what I do every day.”

“So now you’re perfect?”

Hal smiled. “A whole lot closer than I was before I took the workshop. And I want you to take it. You need to experience how solid the material is and how well it works.”

“I don’t know. Taking a class…how long is it?”

“Twelve weeks. Two hours a time. And it’s definitely not just a class; it’s a collaborative workshop.”

I held up my hand to stop the discussion. “Not for me. That’s almost an entire semester. Been there and done that. I’d get more out of a book in one fourth the time – on my own schedule, too, and for a lot less money. And I could enjoy a cup of coffee by the fire while I was reading.”

“There’s also a six-hour intensive meeting before the weekly meetings and pre-work before you even get started.”

“Well that sells the idea even more. Listen Hal, it may have been useful for you, but in truth, you’re younger and less experienced than I am. I’ve had more classes than I care to remember. Some were good, some were great, and some were a total waste of time. Since then I’ve learned on the job, which is probably the best way. I admit I’ve made some mistakes, but not too many and not overly bad ones. The business is going well. My wife loves me. The kids are doing great in college. I just bought a new driver that gives me 30 more yards down the fairway. I’m a happy man.”

“So why learn anything more? Is that what you mean?”

“I’m not saying that. I’m always open to learn. I just don’t want to waste my time.”

“Exactly. The collaborative doesn’t waste time. You learn a skill, try it out, report on it the next week and problem solve with other bright, experienced people. They say 30% of the time is being introduced to new material and 70% of the time you solidify your learning by applying it in your work. The idea is that you do leadership activities anyway, but now you’ll do them in a new and better way.”

I groaned, but Hal pressed on. “Let’s say you want to introduce a change, like moving everyone who is hourly to salary. You can imagine how many different points of view there would be about that.

From the collaborative experience you learn the best way to do it, you try it out, you report on how it went, the other participants give you feedback, and you learn how to do it even better. Then you learn a new skill and the cycle repeats. By the end, you’ve done a lot of new things that improved both you and the business.”
That seemed like a nice idea. “Are you getting a commission from these guys?”

“I just think they’re great. The concept is good, the topics are right, they present the material well, and it works. You can’t beat that.”

“Okay, these guys are great and the workshop is wonderful. Exactly how have you changed?”

“Good question. Before this collaborative, I pretty much stuck with what worked in the past. My leadership was based mostly on my personality, some on figuring things out on the fly, and some on just taking my best guess about what might work. Today I have models to apply to most situations. I know which model to use and how to use it. I know what results to expect. I even have ways to know immediately if what I’m trying to do is the right thing to do. My confidence has soared because I don’t have to guess; I have skills. And what’s even better, I share my skills with all my employees. They have learned how to help me do my job of helping them. It’s almost scary how effective knowing and applying the right model is. Everyone wins.”

“Okay, I’ll consider it,” I told him, and then changed the subject. We were walking to the 14th green and I wanted to get away from thinking about work while I had a chance to birdie the hole.

* * *

I was good to my word and did consider it. I’ve always believed a great leader is someone who unleashes the leadership potential in those around him and I wanted to be a great leader. I wasn’t a great leader then, so Hal’s suggestion was intriguing.

I called Collective Wisdom and talked with Rudy, one of the two guys Hal mentioned. They offered several different programs, but the one Hal took sounded like the best for me. I quickly decided I wanted to join the next collaborative and naturally Rudy said the next one was full; they accept no more than eight participants. Like most people, when I can’t have something I want it more. He told me the next Mistake-Proofing Leadership Collaborative would begin in two months, but I didn’t want to wait. I had to get in now.

That’s why I was so excited to get the letter. What made me anxious was another thing Rudy said, “Participants are required to show up on time, participate fully, listen intently, tell the truth, trust the process and honor commitments.” It’s their basic agreement and it made sense. I have no problem listening and I can tell the truth as well as the next person, but I don’t relish the idea of critiquing myself in front of others if some of my less successful efforts come up for discussion. Some, like the firing of one of my managers, were recent and didn’t go well. I was probably most worried about any blind spots I might have, where I think I know what I’m doing when I really don’t. It isn’t easy taking an in-depth look at yourself when you have so much ego invested in what you already know.

But I was in. I wanted to stretch and learn. I wanted the best for me, the best for my business and the best for my employees. I immediately put the six-hour intensive session on my calendar and soon enough the day to play arrived.

2

THE INTENSIVE

Ten of us (eight participants and our two facilitators) sat around the table chatting. We planned to be together for the next six hours. At exactly eight-thirty, Bob stood up and started the collaborative with a bang.
“Good morning, everyone. I’m Bob. True leadership is obvious, compelling and unifying. It is rare. Nominal leadership is divisive, short-sighted, uninspired, wasteful, collusive and disruptive. I could go on and on. Unfortunately, nominal leadership is all around us. I have known only one true leader in my life. I want to tell you about him. He is also a ‘Bob.’

Bob Carrie was a child psychiatrist I met just a couple of years out of psychology graduate school. I was filled with wonderful theories and I was intent on revolutionizing mental health care. The first stop on my change-the-world tour was at a publicly funded guidance clinic near the California-Mexico border. Our patients were mostly low-income families who paid either nothing or were on a low sliding-fee scale. Every Tuesday, Dr. Carrie arrived at the clinic with a box of donuts to spend an hour consulting with each of six child/adolescent service providers.

He was probably in his sixties, mid-size, beginning to bald and entered rooms with a warm smile and a warmer handshake. He had been a Marcus Welby type family doctor in Michigan before taking advanced training in child psychiatry. It was his job to help us fully understand our patients and provide the exact care they needed.
I didn’t know anything about leadership in those days. Didn’t know much about anything really. You could probably best describe me as enthusiastic and optimistic. During our hour together Bob and I talked about everything, beginning with the cases I presented. Early on that’s all we talked about. But as my skills grew, we discussed bigger ideas, like my contribution to the development of the child/adolescent service, and later my budding leadership of the clinic itself. He would carefully listen to my observations of patient or clinic problems, ask me leading questions, solicit my opinion as to what should be done, test my understanding of the entire process and wish me well. I was the center of that hour.

He ran meetings with the same grace and effect. We all had a part in identifying problems and seeking solutions. I wouldn’t say he was directing our meetings, but afterward I could see how he orchestrated our working together. There was debate, but always toward a group goal, never combat among us.

When I compare his leadership to all those others I experienced in the last thirty some years, what stands out is his genuine appreciation of all the members of his team and the need each of us felt to never let him down, each other down, or our patients down. There was an irresistible pull toward doing what was right.”
Bob stopped his story and looked at each of us in turn. “Our goal is for each of you to become a true leader, someone like Bob Carrie who still leads me thirty years after our last hour together.” He sat down and Rudy stood up.

“I also have a story of a true leader. My example is relatively recent, within the last few years. Melody Cartwright was a director to whom I reported in a large corporation. She was charged with developing executives and other formal leaders, and had daily contact with the executive team. I admire Melody for many reasons. She was a superb listener who easily grasped abstract concepts, including my own emerging conceptualizations. She quickly unearthed gems in even my most outrageous propositions and routinely integrated them with her own thinking. Her frequent refrain, “Try it; learn from it” encouraged me and my colleagues to test our ideas, learn from them and test them again. It also demonstrated her trust in us and her comfort with ambiguity. She balanced this risk-taking with a pragmatism that demanded a quick, though not horrific, pace. Things got done with Melody at the helm.

As an unwavering advocate of customers, she focused on those whom she served: end-use customers, leaders, staff, me. We who reported to her were the beneficiary of her belief that working with and through people required that she develop them. She repeatedly supported my growth by encouraging me to pursue my interests and by opening doors for me throughout the organization. Her door, her mind and her heart were always open, and that made all the difference.

Melody was a true leader for many others. A visionary searching for and finding possibilities extending far beyond current practice. I’m pleased to say that unlike leaders who receive little attention or acknowledgement, Melody received our corporation’s highest leadership award, given to only one recipient each year.”
Rudy paused for a moment, apparently lost in thought, and then said, “She left our organization to do important national work. I miss our working together. We always focused on the well-being of our people and the success of our company.”

Rudy slowly sat down.

If they wanted me to be inspired, those stories worked.

From his seat, Bob pointed to a flip chart labeled “OBJECTIVES.” “These,” he said, “are our objectives for today.” As you can see, it was pretty simple. Although I didn’t know the definitions they were using, I figured I knew of just a couple of true leaders and a barrel full of what they were calling nominal ones. The collaborative agenda called for participants to introduce ourselves and tell of our own experience with either a true leader or a nominal one, probably wanting to check out our assumptions about leaders. I asked to start us off. I told them my name and that I was CEO of Rowdell Software and was pleased that a few nodded their heads in recognition. My story had to do with my most recent boss, the one that had given me the courage to start my own company.

“While thinking about our assignment to bring a story of a great leader, a true leader, I realized that I had been assuming that most of my bosses had been if not great leaders at least good ones and was a bit shocked when I reflected back on all their flaws. Not that I expect anyone to be perfect. I’ve had maybe fifteen bosses in my career, and like Bob, I guess I had only one I would call a true leader.

This was about fourteen, maybe fifteen years ago. I was middle management in the production department of Andrews Metals, a supplier for Boeing. The president was Larry Chapman, been with the company probably twenty years and had seen it all. My boss reported to him, and I had a fair amount of contact with him, too.
What I remember most was the respect that people gave him. He wasn’t authoritarian or formal, just the opposite. But when he walked into a room or even down a hall, you could tell he was the boss. He wasn’t arrogant; you could just feel the confidence.

The other thing was he had a vision for the company. He always said that if Boeing was going to be the global aerospace leader, they won’t be able to do it without us. We were to partner with the biggest and the best. That meant we had to be the best, too. It would have been a disaster for us if Boeing chose another supplier, so we made sure everything we did was better than anyone else. We knew we were good and worked hard to prove it everyday. It was like everything was possible if we followed Larry Chapman.”

Rose Murray, on my left, went next and told us about her company president. She was followed by Sid Whitman. He talked about a little league baseball coach. Fourth to go, John Tiles chose to talk about a nominal leader, a leader in name only, who was good-hearted but totally ineffective.

“The business,” he said, “was a small heavy equipment rental office in Minnesota. We rented machinery to construction companies and independent operators. I worked there my first year out of college while deciding if I wanted to go on to graduate school. I’m surprised I lasted a whole year. I guess I still thought about life in two-semester chunks.

Mr. Abbot was middle-aged, always wore a white shirt and either a blue tie or a green one. He probably had only the two. There were five of us in the office taking orders by phone and making sure the equipment got where it was supposed to go when it was supposed to get there.

Things were okay for the first month or so; then some of my co-workers started to complain to me about the other workers. Everybody had a complaint about somebody. Once every few weeks, Mr. Abbot would call a meeting. He would tell us not to gossip and if you had a complaint about somebody, work it out with the other person; if that didn’t work, come to him. Things usually got better the next day and reverted to normal the day after that.

I went to him once with an idea of how we might create a more effective way of scheduling. He told me it was an interesting idea. That was the last he mentioned it and nothing changed.

Everybody liked him. He told the funniest jokes, remembered everyone’s birthday, and gave out bonuses as often as he could. He was a nice guy; he just didn’t know how to manage an office. Of course, I’d rather work for an honest friendly guy than a self-serving louse, but neither contributes much to a company bottom line or a sense of satisfaction from a job well done.”

The rest of the group shared similar stories of true and not so true leaders. We all had heroes and we all had horror stories.

“So,” Bob said, getting up to stand next to a white board. “What does a true leader look like?”

We peppered him with concepts and spent the next hour debating what should be on the list and exactly what each characteristic meant. Rudy challenged us to distill our ideas down to only five. After significant agony, this was our list.

I tell you it was like sweating blood to agree to just these five. We argued with Rudy and Bob about the five-item limit; “capricious” we called it. They said they wanted a very clear target for becoming true leaders and five was enough. If we wanted to add more when the collaborative was over, that was up to us.

Once we agreed, Rudy stood up and declared, “We have four goals for this collaborative. Number one is what you just agreed on; achieve the five most important characteristics of a true leader.” That seemed like a good goal to me.

At our first break, I asked Rose why she had signed up for the Mistake-Proofing collaborative. “I want to be a mentor,” she said. “I’m seventy-five years old and want to retire before I turn eighty. In the time I have left, I want to make sure every last bit of wisdom I’ve acquired gets passed down. I don’t want to teach people my bad habits. I want them to learn real skills.”

Rose reminded me of my granny Jean. Both were short, less than five feet, with pure white hair. Rose was wearing a cherry red dress that looked exactly right on her. I could see her striding down the hallways at work like an intense grandmother racing to save kids from jumping off roofs or sticking forks into electric outlets.
“I expect this course will teach me how to make sure I’m teaching the right way rather than my way. It’s quite exciting really. But, I’m a bit afraid I might learn I’ve been doing it wrong for fifty years.”

I laughed. “Me, too.”

The second half of the morning session was surprising. I thought we’d get into how to become a true leader. Instead, we spent about ninety minutes talking about nominal leaders.

We went around the table one more time, each of us describing a personal experience with a nominal leader. John and Ann, who had presented stories of nominal leaders in the first go-around, easily came up with a second example of lousy leadership. It’s everywhere, like they said. Complaining about these experiences with bad leaders was kinda fun, cathartic. Then Bob lowered the boom.

“Assuming that none of you is a true leader yet, ask yourself if you are a nominal leader. What mistakes have you made and are even making now in your current position?”

We all groaned and called him unfair. But we saw the wisdom of calling a spade a spade. We were taking this collaborative to learn, so we may as well air our dirty laundry.

“Break into four groups of two,” he continued. “Think about how you lead. Make a list of how you may not be perfect.”

Rose and I paired up. “Shall we list our sins and transgressions?” she asked.

“Okay.” I thought for a moment. “I suppose one of my limitations is I want bullet points. I’m busy. I’m in a hurry. Just give me the highlights. I probably don’t get all the information available or all the information that I need. I also may not give people enough time or attention.”

“That’s nothing,” Rose said. “In my time I’ve probably told ten thousand people how to do a job my way without a thought that maybe they had a better idea.”

I took up her undeclared challenge. “That may be true, but I, in a shorter time, probably delegated fifteen thousand assignments with such confusing directions that Einstein couldn’t have gotten them right.”

Rose smiled sweetly, as if I were a grandchild caught stealing a cookie. “I can believe that. Yet, do you think you’ve worked more twelve-hour days which, if you were smarter, could have been nine-hour days? And allowed you more time with your family? I probably wasted a decade or more.”

I countered with, “Did you ever make a decision that cost your company two million dollars?”

Rose laughed. “Not all at once like you may have, but bit by bit, I’m sure I’ve made ten million dollars worth of mistakes.”

“I think I have let at least a dozen people leave the company because I didn’t know how to get them to stay.”
“And I’ve let dozens stay I should have let go.”

“How has American business survived? I’m surprised we still have jobs. You know Rose, this is a good exercise. It sure shows us how far we are from true leaders, how far most leaders are from true leaders.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Business goes on as usual probably because everyone else is just as bad as we have been, if not worse.”

Rose and I got back on track and listed twenty-two significant weaknesses we have exhibited in our leadership. As we did that, we could hear the murmurs of the other teams. They were equally engaged and astonished at the error rate. We did another go around with both Bob and Rudy listing our faults on flip charts. While one wrote, the other asked for the next fault. Our four groups came up with 87 faults, with many overlapping, of course. We tend to make the same kind of mistakes. Bob challenged us to narrow that 87 to the ten most significant.

This discussion was even more engaging than the first because we were talking about ourselves. It was engaging and a bit unnerving. As we talked, our two facilitators kept asking us for examples of what each concept looked like in the real world. This was the reality we were bringing into the collaborative. This was us in the raw and we sure better be honest and accurate in what we were saying. It took us ninety minutes to get the list down to ten.

Of course, this wasn’t good enough either. Rudy told us to cut it down to the five most significant nominal leader characteristics and put them into active language. “Rather than a lack of something like ‘lack of ethics,’ tell us what they actually do that is bad.”

This was the most fruitful and enjoyable business discussion I’ve had in a long time. We were talking ideals and what was real at the same time. All of us had an example of the destruction caused by a nominal leader. Harriet told the story of one of the vice presidents at a local hospital she didn’t want to name. The vice president, Harriet called ‘Carol,’ continually made executive decisions without any real understanding of the processes she was affecting.

One time Carol decided that to promote better patient satisfaction, every complaint should be recorded into a computer database. From these data, trends would be seen and remedies found. What she didn’t anticipate was the confusion over exactly what degree of complaint warranted inclusion in the database and how anyone was going to free up the time to do complaint entry, especially when some jobs like in the billing department were almost 100% complaint handling. Needless to say, this initiative fell of its own weight, there was another smudge on Carol’s credibility, and nothing changed. I thought to myself, I’ve done that.

We got so much into storytelling and discussing what nominal leaders do that we almost ignored the lunch time announcement; one hour on our own. The three and a half hours had gone quickly, but I was a little dazed and ready for a longer break. The eight of us around the table collected our things as we considered what to do.

Rose had volunteered her company conference room as our meeting place in downtown Bellevue, convenient for everyone and within walking distance of a half-dozen good restaurants. We formed into three groups, those who were after Thai, a group that wanted Mexican and a bunch that craved wraps. Rose, Harriett, John and I were headed to the Blue Burrito, Rose in the lead.

The BB, as Rose called it, seemed to have a hundred tables with ten people at each table all talking at once. We were led to a small nook near the back that was a little quieter and more comfortable for the four of us. Settling in, perusing the menu and ordering took just a few minutes. During our first conversational lull, I asked, “So, how is it so far for everyone?”

John answered first.

“I’m pleased. I was worried that we’d just be given information, the same kind you get in a book. Instead, what we’ve done so far is making us think and conceptualize.”

“Me, too.” To be seen, Harriet had to lean around the server who was already bringing enormous and very hot plates filled to their edges. “I’m not looking for more information, I’m looking for knowledge. I like how we’re all working with ideas and seeing where they take us.”

I had another question. “Does anyone think Rudy and Bob can really teach us how to mistake-proof our leadership?”

Rose smiled that grandmotherly smile. “We’ll see.”

* * *

The afternoon began with continuing the assignment of culling our ten nominal characteristics down to five. We divided into two groups, each given half the current list and asked to redefine the characteristics and to put them into order of importance. My group was my lunch group: Rose the store owner, John the Boy Scout leader, and Harriet the state representative. We were given this list to work on:

• Poor human relations skills
• Poor communication skills
• Lack of vision
• Failure to lead
• Blames others

Rudy and Bob took turns listening to our mini-group discussions, but limited their comments to helping us keep on track. First order of business was to convert the negative into what nominal leaders did rather than didn’t do. Anyone, Bob said, can have poor human relations skills, but what does that mean from someone who is a nominal leader? It wouldn’t help to say a nominal leader discourages people; that would be too narrow of an effect. It also wouldn’t help to say something like they negatively affect people. That was too broad to be meaningful. We had to come up with something that we could use to recognize when someone, including one of us, did it so we could mistake-proof it. This was not going to be easy. But it sure was interesting. It took close to forty minutes to redefine all five. This is what we wrote on a flip chart:

As far as order of importance was concerned, all we did was move “communicating” down two spots and “blame” toward the top. We figured that people were most important, taking responsibility second, a vision third, leading somewhere fourth and communicating fifth. We all agreed that these nominal leader characteristics should be eliminated.

Our two teams gathered together and we reported first. There was some good discussion that changed our definitions a little, but kept the same order.

The other group, Sid the coach, Susan the stay-at-home mom, Richard the Colonel and Allen the farmer from Spokane then presented their five characteristics:

This was the order they liked. They had also combined failure to hold staff accountable and failure to follow through so we just had to reduce nine characteristics to five.

It took half-an-hour of delightful and at times heated discussion. We had a devil of a time defining what our terms meant. We decided that nominal leaders are those others depend on to lead, but who have weaknesses that significantly undermine their value as leaders, and no one does anything about it. Nominal leaders are at worst dangerous, at best creators of waste. Was that us?

We struggled a bit, but eventually agreed on five defining characteristics of a nominal leader.

We were a bit surprised that Bob and Rudy let us get away with such vague definitions. Until Rudy went up to the white board and drew a line, labeling the left end “nominal leader” and the other “true leader” and then asked us to put our name on the continuum at the point we felt we were today and an “X” at the point we’d like to get to.

“I’m not sure I can do that,” Allen said before anyone could get up. “I have to hire a lot of seasonal workers to get my crop in. Is that treating people as only a tool to get to a goal? I feel that I treat them well. I don’t want to put myself down as a nominal leader.”

Harriett had a similar comment. “Although I want to be a good politician, I know I’m no Abe Lincoln. No one is going to miss my presence at the legislature in twenty years. Am I a nominal leader?”

We began to rebel against our own definitions. Sid added, “None of us leads by wisdom. We lead by experience, but I’m not sure about wisdom. What did we mean by wisdom anyway?”

“You all seem to be defining a nominal leader as a bad thing,” Rudy said.

“Sure seems like it is,” Rose told him.

“Well, you’re right; Bob and I think being a nominal leader is a bad thing. We wanted you to define what a bad leader looked like. We’re all bad leaders at times when we’re frustrated or tired, when we’re out of our element, when we just don’t know how to get from point A to point B. For now, just make your best guess where on the line you think you are and an “X” where you would like to be; and know that our job in this collaborative is to move you to where you put your “X.” Bob stood by the board and pointed to “Richard.” “It looks like the Colonel is leading our team toward true leadership. What do you have to say for yourself, Colonel?”

“That’s easy. The army provided me with a lot of leadership training. We are trained to pursue our objectives with as much effort as it takes. We honor our troops and certainly have the big picture in mind even as we crawl through mud. I may be nominal at times and certainly admit I don’t have yet what we might call true leadership skills, but I’m curious gentlemen; where would you put yourselves?”

Bob and Rudy rose to the challenge.

In turn, each walked up to the board, stood there a moment looking at us, and with a flourish, put their initials at the very top of the line.

“Really?” Susan sounded like she needed convincing.

“Sure,” Bob responded. “Rudy and I are proof that just about anyone can become a true leader. Not necessarily a great leader, but a true one. And we believe every great leader is a true leader. So if you can get the true leader part right, who knows how great you might become? Each of you, for example, might be remembered in twenty years like my Dr. Carrie, or even long after that. But as intriguing as this is, it’s time to move on. What we want to accomplish this afternoon is for all of you to have a very clear idea of how to become a true leader. We want you to leave this afternoon knowing exactly what a true leader does that is different than everyone else.”

Rudy took over. “You may be wondering why we titled this collaborative ‘Mistake-Proofing Leadership.’ The reason is simple. For most of us, being a true leader is not something we can achieve easily. As you demonstrated, even at your fairly advanced levels of experience and skill, you all chose to define yourselves closer to being a nominal leader than a true leader. That doesn’t happen by accident, and ironically it shows that you are closer to being true leaders than you indicated.

For the most part, nominal leaders don’t know how inadequate they are, while most good leaders know exactly what their weaknesses are, but may not know how to get better. All of you are in the latter category.
You all told stories of poor leaders who had no clue they were poor leaders. And most of you had stories of true leaders who had significant impact on you and others. Bob and I think that with one simple concept, you all can become true leaders: mistake-proof your leadership, which means no longer make leadership mistakes. You don’t need to be a great leader, but your leadership does need to be mistake-proofed.

Think about this. If you suddenly became sick and needed a doctor, would you stay with one who said, “To tell the truth, I generally don’t do well with your particular problem, but I’d sure be glad to give you my best effort.” Of course you wouldn’t. Now think of your employees who depend on you for leadership and you just admitted that you make quite a few mistakes. Is that what you want? Is that what they want? Is that the best you can do?”

Dear old Rose had to interrupt. “I wondered what this was really all about. Are you saying that we can actually mistake-proof our leadership?”

Bob answered simply, “Yes, we are.”

Rudy added, “But not by yourself. No one is perfect by themselves. No one is ever going to be without flaw. No leader is going to lead without making mistakes. But processes can be created and set in place where mistakes are identified and fixed before they do any harm. To continue our medical metaphor, if baby delivery in the United States was performed at a 99.9% perfection rate, obstetricians would accidentally drop forty newborns a day. Not a good situation. But since these are visible errors, we can figure out what caused the babies to slip and fix the problem. Leaders make a lot of decisions that are harder to judge. Sometimes it’s impossible to immediately see if an error occurred. It might take years to see how a decision ultimately turns out. We need ways to anticipate and head off the potential harm resulting from leader mistakes.

Conceptually, mistake-proofing leadership is simple. If you as a leader can identify what should be done based on sound principles and do it, there’s no problem. When you know what should be done, don’t do it but quickly notice the omission, you usually can still fix it in time to avoid harm. And, if your followers know what you should do and you have granted them sufficient influence to correct your leadership errors, they also will help ensure mistake-proofed leadership.”

Rose raised her hand and began talking as soon as Rudy looked at her. “Rudy, I’ve been around a long time. I’ve seen more leadership theories come and go than Carters has pills. I’m here because I want to learn what mistake-proofing leadership is all about.” She shook her head. “We’re all human here. Are you really saying that you can make all of us mistake-proofed leaders?” It sounded like the same question she asked earlier.
Rudy’s answer was emphatic. “Yes.”

Rose was startled. “‘Yes.’ That’s all you have to say? No equivocation?”

“One equivocation.”

Rose smiled. “I thought so.”

“It won’t happen overnight. There is no magic way of never making a mistake again, but, and this is a very important but, leaders can lead in a way that gets better every day and minimizes weaknesses, improves strengths, and, last but not least, encourages unleashing the leadership of everyone involved. The long-term goal is to mistake-proof leadership or in other words, eliminate harm caused by faulty leadership. It can’t get better than that.”

Richard the Colonel raised his hand. “So you’re saying that we can learn how to be better everyday from now on and every day get closer to being mistake-proofed?”

Bob answered this one along the same vein Rudy did, “Yes. And there’s more.” He tried to sound like one of those TV commercials. “And not only do you get to improve every day, minimize weaknesses and improve strengths, but if you act now you’ll also receive a way of measuring progress and you’ll also be training your staff how to be true leaders just like you.”

“So far,” Rudy continued, “we’ve talked about true and nominal leaders. Does everyone have a good idea of what a true leader is?” We all nodded. “Good. How about nominal leaders? We all nodded again. “Good.” He looked at his watch. “In our last hour, we want to cover how to become a true leader. Bob?”

Bob stood up and walked to a far corner of the room. Then he began pretending to shoot a basketball. At least that’s what it looked like. He did whatever he was doing for about half a minute. “I’m shooting free throws,” he said. “What needs to happen for me to improve?”

Susan immediately said, “Feedback. You need to know if you’re making them or how you’re missing them.”
Bob stopped. “Perfect,” he said. “The only way to improve something is to get feedback on your performance. That is true of leadership, too. What else do I need in order to improve?”

This one had us stumped for a moment. Sid, the coach, came through like a champ. “Technique or skills. You need to know how to shoot and how to improve. You need to know how to improve your technique.”
Bob looked over to Rudy. “Boy, am I glad we invited these people.”

Rudy jumped in, “And that’s what mistake-proofing leadership involves, skills and feedback. We’re going to teach you the best practice leadership skills and enable you to know how well you’re using them. Form into three groups. I’ll join one so each group has three people, and Bob will visit each one as a coach. What we want you to do in your group is identify and discuss any assumptions you have about leadership skills and competencies. We want you to discuss what you know right now about how to become a better leader. The reason for this exercise is to clear up any erroneous assumptions and ensure that we all see the bright white line between nominal leaders and true leaders.”

Harriett, Allen and I pulled our chairs together into a small circle. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had said our group would talk nonstop for forty minutes. But we did. We had only fifteen minutes left when the whole group got together again.

“What did you come up with?” Bob asked.

Allen spoke for our group. “Leadership is something you can be born with, it’s in our personality, but it can also be developed. It’s harder for some than for others to learn. Leadership is complicated and slow to grow. I guess we didn’t go deep into the subject, but that’s about it for our group.”

Richard went next for his group. “We talked a bit about what Allen mentioned. We think leadership is something that can add to itself. That is, if you’re successful leading one thing you are more likely to be good at leading the next thing, and people are going to be more willing to follow. We also think that to be a good leader you probably have to learn how to be a good follower. A tightly defined structure of when you’re a leader and when you’re a follower seems to help.”

“Like in the army,” John called out.

“Yes,” Richard agreed, “like the army. We also talked about how helpful it is to be allowed to make mistakes. We think developing leaders should stretch themselves, fail at times, but hopefully not so there is any permanent damage to anyone or anything.”

“We agree to all of the above,” Susan spoke for her group. “We would also add that for a leader to grow he or she must want to. We had Rudy in our group as a ringer and he mentioned expectancy theory where people need to expect that they will have a positive effect before they’ll try something. Growing leaders is the same thing. Leaders have to figure that any effort is worth making and that the result is going to be meaningful. We talked about great leaders being great leaders because they accomplished great things. We liked the idea of leaders being true leaders because they accomplished true things. Last, we liked the idea of a flat leadership structure where everyone is a leader to some degree.”

Bob walked over to the flip chart that listed our objectives. “We know what true leaders are. We know what nominal leaders are. Do we also know that to become a true leader we must have…” and he started writing on another flip chart.

Bob turned to us. “Agreed?”

We finished reading the list and agreed.

Rudy stood up. “Next time, next week at noon actually, back here at Rose’s place – and thank you Rose for being our host for our first two meetings – we will jump into the four pillars of mistake-proofing that form the structure for everything else we do: moments of truth, the concept of waste, mistake-proofing, and bundling. In two hours we’re going to cover the meat and potatoes of mistake-proofing leadership so when we’re finished you won’t be able to sleep until you actually begin mistake-proofing your leadership. Any questions?”

There were none. I think all of us were mentally fatigued. It had only been from eighty-thirty until three-thirty with an hour for lunch, but I don’t think I’ve put as many brains cells to work in a long time and probably no one else had either.

“How did it go today?” Bob asked.

“Great. Super. Very informative. Exactly what I was hoping for.” All the comments framed our enthusiasm.
“How could it have gone better?” Rudy asked.

We mulled that one over. None of us had anything negative to say so we all made more comments about how much we had gained.

“Thank you all for coming,” Bob said. “And remember, next week we cover the four pillars of mistake-proofing leadership and we promise that afterwards you’ll be too excited to sleep until you put the ideas into action.”