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Characteristic of Leadership

Seeing Things Differently

Here are two lessons to illustrate an unusual characteristic of leadership.

The two stories, one about Tom Watson Jr. and the other about Thomas Edison, both illustrate how great leaders deal with costly mistakes.

The way both leaders responded to their situations demonstrated an essential characteristic of leadership – the ability to see things differently. An ability which illustrates the importance of vision over short-sightedness.


A Characteristic of Leadership – Seeing a Costly Mistake or a Learning Investment?

Tom Watson Jr., CEO of IBM between 1956 and 1971, was a key figure in the information revolution. Watson repeatedly demonstrated his abilities as a leader, never more so than in our first short story.

Characteristic of leadership

A young executive had made some bad decisions that cost the company several million dollars. He was summoned to Watson’s office, fully expecting to be dismissed. As he entered the office, the young executive said, “I suppose after that set of mistakes you will want to fire me.” Watson was said to have replied,

“Not at all, young man, we have just spent a couple of million dollars educating you.”

(Source: Edgar Schein in his book Organisational Culture and Leadership)

This story provides a strong message of support and a reminder that some of the most powerful lessons we can learn are from our so-called failures or difficult times.

Remember Edison’s famous saying: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison also demonstrated a great response to adversity which compliments Watson Jr’s actions.

When his factory was burned down, with much of his life’s work inside, Edison said: “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.”

A characteristic of leadership is to see things differently. Seeing mistakes as an investment in learning. Seeing that, even in disaster, you can start anew.

Now consider your own situation:

  • What message does your organisation give in the way it responds to mistakes?
  • What culture do you create with your team, by your attitude to mistakes made by your colleagues?
  • Just as important, what lessons can you learn from your own mistakes and difficult times?

Characteristic of Leadership: Seeing Success Differently

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Both stories illustrate an essential characteristic of leadership – to see things differently. These are lessons that challenge us all to re-consider the way we view mistakes and difficulties.

To think about the long term, and the real value of what we do, we need to see things differently. Perhaps as Tom Watson Jnr showed in these memorable quotes:

  • “If you stand up and be counted, from time to time you may get yourself knocked down. But remember this: A man flattened by an opponent can get up again. A man flattened by conformity stays down for good.”
  • “Whenever an individual or a business decides that success has been attained, progress stops.”
  • “Nothing so conclusively proves a man’s ability to lead others as what he does from day to day to lead himself.”
  • “Really big people are, above everything else, courteous, considerate and generous — not just to some people in some circumstances — but to everyone all the time.”
  • “Every time we’ve moved ahead in IBM, it was because someone was willing to take a chance, put his head on the block, and try something new.”

Finally, here are some quotes about re-defining success, perhaps by seeing it differently:

  • “Many of life’s failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Thomas Edison
  • “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill
  • “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”Booker T Washington
  • “He who has never made a mistake, never made a discovery.” Samuel Smiles
  • “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” Bill Gates
  • “I am a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.” Abraham Lincoln
  • “Success in management is when those you manage succeed, and the organisation you work for succeeds.” Unknown

If you enjoyed “Characteristic of Leadership”, you can find more thought provoking quotes on our pages: Success Quotes and Quotes on Success.

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