No Excuse Needed – Why Leaders Sometimes Need To Let It Go

By Heather Campbell

I had one of those heart-drop moments this week. Waiting to board the tube at Waterloo train station, I was enjoying the feeling of being unburdened, light on my feet, free. Until I realised the reason – I’d left my suitcase on the train I’d arrived in some 10 minutes earlier. Hastily retracing my steps, I went back to the busy station platform in search of that train.

There followed a comedy worthy of a Netflix show as I checked with one station attendant after another to find out how I might locate the train and my case. At least 15 people – each extremely pleasant and helpful – gave me completely different information. Following each misleading path to its end, I eventually had to admit defeat. The train – and my suitcase – had gone.

As I regaled friends, family, work colleagues – and anyone else who’d listen that day – with my tale of woe, it got me thinking about how we react to simple mistakes.

I was frustrated with my stupidity. I berated myself internally.

Supportive friends, family, work colleagues and understanding strangers immediately gave me handy excuses.

‘You were probably just so tired that you forgot it.’ Nope, well rested.
‘You’ve got so much on your mind, you forgot it.’ Nope, wasn’t concerned about anything much that day.
‘The train was likely so packed, you forgot it’. Nope, the train wasn’t busy.

Listen, I’m not decrying this well-intentioned support and empathy. It was certainly better than others telling me I was stupid. I was focussed enough on that myself.

But ultimately, there was no reason. I just forgot my luggage.

I made a mistake – plain and simple.

I made a mistake because I’m human and humans make mistakes.

As leaders, we’ll use neat phrases like ‘The person who never made a mistake never did anything’ or ‘To err is human’. We’ll say it’s okay to make a mistake. But do we really mean that?

How do you respond if someone in your team makes a mistake? No reason for it. Just being human.

How do you respond if you make a mistake? No reason for it. Just being human.

It’s so tempting to look for the person or situation we can blame. The excuse we can make. It’s so easy to feel angry at the stupidity.

Of course there will be times there’s a reason. We were rushing. We were doing too many things at once. We were stressed. We were tired. It isn’t wrong to ask if there’s a cause and to take action to remove or change that cause.

Equally, sometimes, we have to give people space to acknowledge – to give ourselves space to acknowledge – we made the mistake because we are human. And then to accept this without blame or excuses or anger.

It’s harder to do than we realise. But it’s also a waste of time and energy.

Who are you blaming or excusing or getting angry with today about a mistake they’ve made? Is it possible this blame or excuse or anger is misplaced because they are, after all, human?

Are you blaming or excusing or getting angry with yourself today about a mistake you’ve made? Is it possible this blame or excuse or anger is misplaced because you are, after all, human too?

Is it time to let it go?

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