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John Clinton is the CEO of public relations firm Edelman Canada.
John Clinton is the CEO of public relations firm Edelman Canada.

LEADERSHIP LAB

Climbing the leadership ladder, one mistake at a time Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

When I was recently invited to speak to a group of 100-plus people on leadership, I was asked to talk about my failures, and what I’d learned that had helped me become a better leader. It got me thinking about mistakes I’ve made in my career, which is not something I’m in the habit of doing, but I was able to share some pretty candid stories that, while painful, have truly helped me to learn far more about leadership than any of my successes:

If you think it’s wrong, it probably is.

I was in a new leadership role and had to make many changes to attempt to turn around a money-losing operation. After six months of releasing people and rebuilding a new leadership team, I was pressured by head office into laying off an older woman who had not been performing up to par.

It was year-end, and head office wanted everything finalized in that fiscal. I was concerned that the company had been through so much change already that we couldn’t withstand more, and that if this change was not handled properly, it would set us back and undermine my ability to lead.

I fought back and said we couldn’t do it, to which I was told, “If you won’t, we’ll find someone who will.” I relented, and from then on was seen by employees as the uncaring leader who couldn’t find a way for someone to retire with dignity – undermining all the positive change we had made in the organization. I should have done it my way, on my time.

Stand up for your people, no matter what.

I had a major client who was incredibly abusive to people – both our people and his. His reign of terror was taking its toll – in fact, in one presentation he was so verbally abusive to one of our staff members that she ended up in the hospital suffering from stress.

When I challenged him on his behaviour, he asked if I was there “to resign the account.” This being our largest account, I said I wasn’t, but that I was there to talk about his unacceptable treatment of our people. He said that unless I was there to resign the account, we had nothing to talk about and the meeting was over.

I went to see his president, who told me that, “he’s a bit overzealous in his ways, but he gets results” – so essentially, it was my problem to deal with. The account person left us. With how helpless I felt, it truly became one of the low points of my entire career.

When it happened again about five years later with another major client, I held my ground. I said yes, I would resign the business, got the CEO on board, and this time got the abusive client removed.

You are going to make mistakes, so make them quickly.

In my first job as president of a small ad agency, I was overcome with fear – fear of making a mistake. So to avoid making a mistake, I didn’t make any decisions. The more decisions I avoided, the more paralyzed with fear I became. I had lunch with a mentor of mine who asked how I was doing. He went on to ask how many decisions I had made that week and what they were. Realizing I was frozen, he told me in his ever-so-eloquent way that I was going to screw up, so screw up quickly. People would forgive mistakes, but they would never forgive, nor respect, not making decisions.

Most people become paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes – particularly in a new leadership role. But people want leaders to lead. They understand you are new – they even understand if you make mistakes. But they don’t understand if you don’t set the tone. The “tone at the top” is the single most important thing you can do as a leader, and it starts 10 seconds into the new job, not three months, not even three weeks.

Don’t let the fear of mistakes get in the way of your leadership goals. Leadership is earned, leadership is even assumed – but leadership is never granted.

John Clinton (@johnclinton122) is the chief executive officer of public relations firm Edelman Canada (@EdelmanTO).

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