There May be Potential in those Mistakes


One day as I worked as a young researcher in laboratory, a colleague walked in with some photos. Her team had been involved in drug trials in humans of a certain blood pressure (vasodilator) medicine. The photos showed children who had high blood pressure that couldn’t be treated with other blood pressure medications. When the children took the medicine over time, someone became aware that they unexpectedly grew hair all over their bodies – and these photos showed very hairy children.

That was the start of Rogaine, the drug that grows hair on balding heads. Although it was tragic that those children grew unwanted hair (but it was reversible when the drug was withdrawn), it was a mistake that (literally) grew into money for the company I worked for. The bad news for consumers is that once someone starts using it, they can’t stop (unless they want the hair they’ve grown to fall out). However, this is good news for the manufacturer, as they have potential lifelong customers.

Rogaine began as a mistake. When the photos were first circulated with some hint that the company may market the active ingredient as a cure for baldness, even the employees made jokes about how ridiculous that idea was. Yet the leader who championed this cause persisted. And Rogaine is still being sold – decades after that unusual discovery of “unwanted hair”.

This story, odd as it may be, is a story of noticing potential and exhibiting courage in the face of naysayers – even in the mistakes that are made.

Noticing potential and having courage in the face of adversity can be most profound when you apply it to the people you lead:

Notice who is struggling in your organization. Who is making mistakes? Often, just spending some time listening to them, asking about their passions and skills will be enough to lift them up and realize their own potential. Too often, the attitude is “sink or swim”, but I am continually moved by the stories of great leaders who were able to see the potential in someone and help them overcome the struggles in their current situation.

Find out what they need to be successful. How can you help? Ask them and then coach them. Good people are hard to find, and letting them struggle to the point of going on performance warning is not always the best answer. You may find gold in that person if you are willing to work to discover it. You might be able to help them to alter their work in a way that is more satisfying and in keeping with their strengths, or you may find that there is another job in your organization that suits them better.

Champion them to the naysayers There may be plenty of people in the organization who don’t believe that those who’ve made mistakes also have potential. Respond to them with stories about the positives you see, and continue to help the strugglers to reach their highest potential. At some point, others will notice their strengths too.

Sometimes, those who are struggling in your organization just require some positive attention and coaching from you. Give it, and watch them reach their potential!




I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

3 comments on “There May be Potential in those Mistakes

  1. Great perspective. And the more that an organization promotes the culture that you describe, rather than a “sink or swim” culture, the more good things happens. Employees feel free to take risks and innovate. In the long-term, that’s the type of culture that will enable the business to thrive.

  2. Great perspective on making mistakes! I think it goes beyond innovation. I see it as part of the leadership / delegation issue. The leader who does not delegate is not leading. When they are not delegating they are almost always trying to prevent mistakes, i.e., avoiding risk. Good leadership requires shifting ownership, accountability and authority for decision-making down the line in order to develop the team’s capability to grow. Part of that growth is allowing people to make mistakes.

    How they are allowed to make mistakes matters, e.g., in high-risk environments – think the nuclear industry – you need to carefully define where people can take risks.

    Needless to say, the best way to foster productive mistake-making is for the leader to be transparent about their learning from mistakes.

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