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Have you made any mistakes?

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”. - Albert Einstein

Under the leadership of Tom Watson Jr. IBM (International Business Machines) came to be regarded as not only a great company but also a most profitable one. The vision and implementation were outstanding. The focus on people as the greatest asset was an important factor in IBM’s rise to greatness. The following example of handling mistakes illustrates extraordinary leadership qualities.
A senior vice president lost US$ 250,000 (a very large amount of money at that time) on an initiative which did not succeed. The Executive crestfallen upon entering the office of Watson apologised and said " I am sorry for what went wrong, I accept full responsibility. You can expect my resignation on your table first thing tomorrow morning" .
Watson rejected the offer of resignation saying, "we can't let you go, we have just spent $250,000 on your education".

The gentleman in question subsequently went on to make a remarkable contribution to IBM's success.

Another instance.
There was a big fire at Thomas Edison’s laboratory. Everything was being consumed by the fire, and everyone flayed their hands while the firemen made their best efforts to douse the blaze, but the fire raged on destroying everything.
Edison stood there with many of his assistants watching the situation.
A researcher who had spent many years working with Edison was sobbing uncontrollably.
Edison asked the assistant “Why are you crying?”
The researcher replied “Thirty years of hard work going up in flames, it’s simply unbearable”
Edison laughed and responded “ In fact I am happy, thirty years of mistakes have been consigned to the flames. We can now state afresh on a clean slate.”

This attitude differentiates Edison from the unnamed assistant, and why the world remembers Thomas Edison and not that assistant.

I was 23 when I and my brothers joined the family business. I tried to step into the shoes of my mentor, my teacher and best friend my Uncle Manohar Singh ji.
As with all students and followers I craved the approval of my teacher.
My Uncle had by then retired from the family business. However we often used to spend time together just chit chatting about life, work and generally enjoying each other’s company. I did not realise it then, but my Uncle indulged me to a great extent.

People, particularly young men like to brag, even if they have achieved a small measure of success.
I was no different.

One evening after I had delivered a long monologue of what all I had achieved and was going to achieve. After I wound down, my Uncle bowled me over with a smile and three questions;
  1. Have you made any mistakes?
  2. If you have made mistakes, then what have you learnt from them?
  3. If you have learnt something, then what are you doing with the lessons?
I was extremely upset. Gosh! Why was it so damn difficult to satisfy my Uncle? He was simply impossible.
We finished the rest of our meal in silence. Seeing me off at the door, saying “Satsriakal” he simply hugged me.
I spent a restless night. By the morning it dawned on me, that what my Uncle had asked me, was as usual relevant and useful.
Like all great teachers and guides, he had forced me to think, simply by asking questions rather than dictating or advising me.

The next few weeks I tried to list out my failures, but could hardly find any. This was not because I had not screwed up, it was because I was so full of myself. After all success blinds a person to one’s own faults and failures.

I forced myself to become self critical making a note of all the mistakes I was making. Once I started being honest with myself  I saw that there were plenty of flaws. I like to write down stuff so I listed them and the lessons I drew from them and then what I was to do or had done to implement solutions.
Rather than make me feel worse it rejuvenated me. I was improving and becoming a better person and leader.

A year later I introduced this aspect of discussing failures and mistakes informally during performance appraisal meetings. I asked that staff and managers to list the top 10 mistakes they had made, the lessons learnt and the corrective actions they were taking.

I expected dramatic outcomes. It appeared that I had run straight into a wall.
My team members were confused and some were in panic, after all this is not what bosses are supposed to ask. Bosses should ask about your achievements not about your failures. They went into denial. I was surprised to find that almost no one was willing to concede to making mistakes. They claimed that the problem causes lay with other people or the organisation at large and they were mostly blameless.

I soon realised that the problem is not with the people as much as it is with the leaders and the bosses. Bosses cannot tolerate mistakes or weaknesses in their subordinates. The moment a junior confesses to making a mistake, he or she is crucified. No wonder subordinates go to great lengths to conceal their mistakes and by extension hide the weaknesses of their organisation.

Problems do not resolve by themselves, they have to be tackled. But how does one tackle a problem or issue that one is unaware of?
To achieve greatness an organisation must overcome its inertia and improve continuously. This is possible only if you know what needs improvement or change.

Ordinary people love to talk of their achievements not failures. Such people tend to become static since they look at the past. On the other hand outstanding people and achievers learn more from their mistakes and focus on the future, new opportunities and positive development. By focussing on mistakes and lessons learnt we were able to identify the innovative and bold leaders of tomorrow.

As we introduced this radical aspect into our culture, we learnt a few lessons;
  • There is a difference between a mistake and negligence.
  • There is a difference between a risk and a gamble.
Negligence is failing to respond as trained, instructed or as per laid down guidelines. Negligence is failing to deal with known and predictable problems identified for which prescribed solutions and protocols exist. An example of negligence would be a nurse or doctor failing to use sterilised instruments, even though they are mandated and available . This will increase the probability of passing on infection to patients.
Failing to ensure use safety equipment in spite of equipment and training being available .
Mistakes are acceptable and natural but there is no scope for tolerating negligence.

A risk is based on an informed decision where there is a clear understanding that the outcomes may be different from those expected or that demands of money, time and resources may be higher than expected. A risk decision is always backed up by a contingency plan to mitigate unfavourable outcomes.
A gamble is based on sketchy information. It usually involves a hunch and luck. Being speculative in nature a gamble can provide high rewards and on the other hand the damages can be significant. In a loss situation the gambler’s instinct is to double the odds in a hope to recoup losses often making the situation worse.

Mistakes are welcome opportunities to improve. If organisations, leaders and individuals respond appropriately, they strengthen organisations in the long run. Negligent individuals and gamblers destroy organisations.

An organisation seeking to get ahead must constantly innovate for the best, but this is a mentality that leaders and managements need to nurture.
Team members have to feel comfortable to know that they will not be punished for taking risks. They must not be punished for making mistakes however they must be ostracized for negligence.

One of the reasons there is stagnancy or no improvement in government or state managed organisations and also in organisations that have become large and bureaucratic, is that doing nothing is safer than taking risks. People are not rewarded for taking risks or innovating but severely punished for making mistakes. The design and structure of our government systems and administration are several centuries old.

Forget the old Swiss proverb which says “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. This phrase was coined approximately 600 years ago, during the agrarian economies of those times where nothing really changed much for millennia.
Now with advent of knowledge and technology things and the environment change very fast. Therefore people and organisations must change, and improvise continuously not only if they want to thrive but merely to survive.

Beware bosses and leaders!, Before you go out and ask your juniors to start admitting to their mistakes and blunders, here are a couple of things you need to keep in mind.
  1. People will be openly admit to mistakes if they know that you will attack the problem and not the individual. People are not punished for trying and failing.
  2. Not everyone wants to lead. Many are simply content to follow. Organisations need a lot of people to implement decisions. If an individual is risk averse put that person to follow a leader. Everyone wins.
  3. Conversely if you try to bottle up a talented and innovative person you will lose an asset but not before they cause a lot of turbulence. Give such people a loose rein and try to channelise their energy. Let them take risks
Beware juniors! If you are an employee, judge your organisation well.
  1. Risk taking can be successfully taken in an environment that encourages creativity and is looking to the future. Here your mistakes will be tolerated and even appreciated.
  2. However any organisation with no vision or a decent game-plan is mired in the present and sometimes even in the past, such organisations simply do not promote innovation or even tolerate openness. Admitting to weakness or mistakes by individuals in such organisations can be fatal to a person’s career.
Once we won the trust of our people, we improved continuously and rapidly, to achieve a reputation of a “Can achieve almost anything organisation” inspiring hearts and minds of individuals and teams.

Innovation and therefore risk taking is a culture not an instruction.


  1. Lal Ghanshani said;
    satsriakal , keep educating me and many , ur becoming instrument of higher source , regards lal

  2. Anish Poojara said;
    Nice reading.

  3. Anil Pillai said;
    Great lesson for all managers & employees.


  4. Vijay Nanda said;
    Btw you are aware that IBM came up because it facilitated Hitler's "pogram" on the jews ?

    Many years ago, a book was written about this over 600 pages of history and hard fact, IBM and the Holocaust

    here are a few links,

    wikepedia ~

    Website ~

    In fact even U-tube has a few videos on this !
    The less said about American business houses the better !


  5. Payal Desai said;
    Hi Uncle

    I have been passively readnig your blogs....
    but this one has prompted me to respond...
    its a lovely blog.. and absolutely bang on - we tend to take mistakes personally rather than alienating the action from the individual.. a lot of understand this in theory but requires great maturity in actually practicing :)
    and some one who can display it can def go on to become a great leader..

    just my random ramblings :)


  6. Akshay Chaturvedi said;

    Dear rainy,

    The story I know is a little different.
    The guy who committed the blunder wanted to see Tom but could'nt get an appointment. He thought that Tom must be really cross with him.

    However, a few days later he was called to the office and Tom had a plan streched out in front of him. he asked this gentleman for his inputs. This guy had come prepared with his papers, was astonished and asked Tom if he were serious.

    Then Tom gave him the statement you have mentioned.

    Not long ago, when I used to take interviews for senior positions, after going through about the regular tell me about yourself bits, one pet question of mine used to be " tell me a mistake or blunder you committed which you are really proud of ". and lead the rest of the interview from there.

    After the person had said what he wanted to say, I used to dig into my life and come out with a bigger mistake than his and narrate the same to the guy among laughters. All ice used to break. After that only the truth used to prevail and thats what everyone was getting at, anyway.

    There should be an article from you on 'CELEBRATING FAILURES'. or be the father of the failure. This topic will really make you dig deep.

    Best wishes,

  7. I went thru the articles from the links you provided.
    It is indeed sad. Thanks for educating me

    My views on IBM's role in the holocaust.
    1. IBM was interested in promoting equipment and cards for census purposes and this was a legitimate business strategy.
    2. IBM did not know that Hitler was going to use census data for identifying and elminating Jews. Therefore it will not be fair to blame IBM.


  8. Neeraj Agarwal said;
    Dear Guru,
    As a trainee I have had the pleasure and experience of being under the same roof as Tom Watson Jr. at IBM - WTC(World Trade Corporation)] New York for a brief period of 7 – 8 months in 1975 when he was President of IBM (WTC).
    Never had the opportunity of a one to one interaction with him though – My loss.
    Neeraj Agarwal


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