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  • Writer's pictureLiz Tracy

Where Are You Riding the Brakes?

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

You may remember I shared that we made many mistakes on our last road trip.

About a quarter into the 19-mile descent from Pike's Peak my husband told my son, you need to get these brakes checked asap. They don’t feel right. And, then we noticed an odd, sweet, mechanical smell.

We pulled into a checkpoint and the ranger informed us that the rotors were measuring a temp of 900 degrees, and we couldn’t continue until we got it down to under 300. Now we knew what the smell was and why the brakes felt funny. My son, who is moving off our payroll, began to panic about how he was going to afford the anticipated brake job.

As we waited, we actually read the instructions and learned we should have been driving in low gear and using that to go slower, instead of riding the brakes. Well… there you go. My son learned through this meaningful mistake and discovered the value of paying more attention to the recommendations: a timely and helpful lesson to someone heading off to wide open spaces.

And, we had a great discussion about where we ride the brakes in other areas of our lives.

In my last blog, I wrote about the value of leading through mistakes. As a leader, how do you describe a meaningful mistake? At its core, being wrong requires we accept our understanding may be limited, out-of-date, or simply fallible. This requires intellectual humility. According to social and personality psychologist Mark Leary, “Intellectual humility is simply the recognition that the things you believe in might in fact be wrong.”

This is not about a lack of self-esteem, confidence, or being a pushover.

People with intellectual humility think methodically. They are open to the possibility that they may be wrong and seek to learn from the experience, knowledge, and expertise of others. They recognize and learn from experiences.

The intellectually humble have an active curiosity about their blind spots. When they are wrong, they are more likely to admit it. They understand that when we admit we’re wrong, we can grow closer to the truth. This makes their mistakes meaningful. And, not personal.

Think about it, the pace at which we move and are forced to decide requires we work with incomplete information, we should be making mistakes and pivoting quickly.

In today’s complex world, this is not always easy. Even great leaders can fall into any of the five common blind spot categories:

1. Experience

2. Personality

3. Values

4. Strategy

5. Conflict

Great leaders recognize and acknowledge that they have cognitive blind spots. They also carefully examine and choose their convictions. When they identify errors, mistakes, or new understanding, they promptly admit it.

Meaningful Mistakes in Organizations

In my work with organizations, I have found that the practice of making meaningful mistakes can be mastered as a corporate culture. This requires support from leadership with proper mindset, and models.

In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (HarperCollins 2010), author Kathryn Schulz describes two models of wrongness:

1. Pessimistic model: errors are dangerous, humiliating, distasteful, and un-fun.

2. Optimistic model: errors are a surprise of bafflement, fascination, excitement, hilarity, and delight.

With the second model, innovation is more likely to occur. This culture is highly agile, adaptable, and productive. Are you interested in learning more about how to successfully navigate meaningful mistakes? You can use your executive presence to exude confidence, credibility, and authority. Dana Dowdell and I recently discussed it on the Quirky HR podcast, listen to it here.

What’s happening in your organization? How do you describe meaningful mistakes? I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at and on LinkedIn.

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