Leadership and how we handle mistakes: a bi-cultural perspective

04 May 12:00 by Stephanie Greaves


Let’s agree that the word “mistake” is already perceived as a pejorative word which sends shivers down some people’s spine, whereas others have made peace with it as merely another word in their vocabulary.   How we process our failings is for some part influenced by our cultural perspective and education system.  Having experienced both French and English education systems, I thought it was interesting to explore how the perception of mistakes in a given culture can influence the type of leadership we practice and the professional we become. 

Through my French educational experience I have learnt the importance of rigour, learning my lessons by heart, structuring my arguments and gaining a broad, yet in-depth, general knowledge across many subjects (some which I may not have chosen given the chance!).  The assessments were tests of what I knew and what I did not. It would not be uncommon after getting our tests back for friends to peak over and competitively ask, how many mistakes did you make?  Questions raised in class could only generate a right or wrong answer and the latter was sometimes coupled with varying degrees of public humiliation.  Whilst assessments of knowledge acquired also existed in the British curriculum, there was a much stronger focus on critical thinking, analysis and text interpretation.  This left more room for grey area to express one’s ideas without them being condemned in the classroom.  Although some teachers may experience frustration at having to validate half-baked ideas as “good points”, the system may arguably have produced individuals who were less paralysed at the prospect of making mistakes.

I unashamedly Googled “leadership” and “mistakes” in both languages to see what articles popped up first and the cultural gap was pretty astounding. In English, among the first articles to appear were “4 impressive ways leaders handle their mistakes” and “Reasons Great Leaders admit their mistakes”.  The same search in French generated a variety of articles stating all the mistakes you needed to avoid in leadership, suggesting that mistakes actually weaken your position.  If the avoidance of mistakes at all costs is somehow ingrained, the prospect of exercising a role of responsibility without making any must be very daunting.   

Our collective COVID-19 experience has offered us a varied menu of different types of leadership exercised when tackling the sanitary crisis, many of which have generated criticism.  Emmanuel Macron in his last address to the French people acknowledges “insufficiency” and “flaws” in the handling of the crisis.  So, has the President taken on a form of leadership that could be perceived as an uncharacteristic in France or one that is adapted to the sensitivity of the situation?

Admittedly there has been little precedent to explain to us how to handle the unsettling situation we are living, therefore, we cannot handle this situation flawlessly?  Will the leaders who acknowledge their failings or those striving to demonstrate ultimate knowledge and control over the sanitary crisis be the ones who prevail?  Might Macron’s approach generate less taboo around discussing failings and what we have learnt from them? And will those who have arguably been exposed to an Anglo-Saxon approach in accepting one’s mistakes be more inclined to own up to them?

When we recruit, we learn a lot from a candidate when hearing how they have handled adversity and what they would have done differently.  Discussing these topics reveals true authenticity which is essential when assessing a cultural fit with a company.  The confidence inspired by self-awareness can be a valuable component of great leadership.  

Recognising this has been part of our growth at Laurence Simons Search and we have consolidated this by delving deep into the world of psychometrics with Lumina Learning. Becoming practitioners ourselves in order to, in turn, assist candidates and clients in their professional growth.

We feel strongly aligned with the Lumina Spark Profiling method, a psychometric personality screening which avoids stereotypes and provides a (scarily!) accurate and personalised reading of an individual’s strengths and developmental areas – ultimately helping you find your inner spark and increase your potential!

If you would like to learn more about your 3 personas, please contact me, Stephanie Greaves, or alternatively reach out to another member of the team.