Unless you live in a very different world than I do, you have probably noticed one of the dominant reactions to our times: fear.  If you’re an employee, you may fear the possibility of that unplanned visit by the HR team.  If you’re a boss, you may fear the directive to trim yet more cost from your area of responsibility.  If you’re a consultant, you may fear that meeting with a client or prospect when they tell you they just don’t have the funding to do your project.

All of those circumstances can lead people to especially fear mistakes, and this can be a real problem for leaders. Instill a deep fear of mistakes in your team and you just might keep an already faltering organization stalled for some time.  Here’s a story to illustrate:

I have a friend named Shaun who runs a very unique program at a Chicago-area high school.  He is a chef by training, and attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (kind of the Harvard of chef schools).  The guy can cook.  But he’s chosen to put his skills to work teaching high school students how to run a first-class food operation.  In fact, they run a full restaurant at their high school and serve top-notch meals to faculty and staff. And you thought extended summer breaks were the best part of teaching!

A graduate of his program was accepted to an elite chef school and sent to Spain to apprentice under one of the top chefs there.  On her first night in the kitchen, she was handed an order of chicken and told to put the appropriate sauce on it.  Unfortunately, the instructions were given in Spanish and this young lady spoke no Spanish: nada.  She looked around, took her best guess as to which sauce to use and finished the dish.

Much to her chagrin, her immediate supervisor looked at the dish in horror: she had finished this chicken dish with chocolate sauce.  The supervisor showed the dish to the head chef.  He looked at the dish and the young American chef waited for the inevitable Gordon Ramsey-like explosion.  She mentally had her bags packed for a return trip in disgrace.

Instead, the chef smiled and said, “You will do well.  You took initiative.  I would much rather you take initiative and make mistakes sometimes than that you wait to be told what to do.”  The dish had to be trashed and started over, but the chef had learned something important about his young student.

Happy Chef

“The initiative is marvelous.  The chocolate chicken – not so much…”

So as leaders, now more than ever, we must find ways to encourage initiative and courage even when they cause mistakes.  Yes, we should watch to see if team members can learn from and anticipate future problems.  But courageous (imperfect) action almost always beats fear. Who needs some recognition for taking initiative despite fear in your world?