Lessons Learned From the Year’s Best Screw-Ups

We all make mistakes.

I make them all the time. (Want proof? Check out my lessons learned from a major meltdown post)

Luckily most of my mistakes happen relatively privately, involving few people.

Others aren’t so fortunate.

Their mistakes occur smack dab in the public spotlight – for all to see and judge.

Which means the rest of us get to sit back and learn from every single one.

Take a look back over the year and you’ll find a bounty of screw-ups to choose from.

I now present to you just three.

Screw-up #1: The Rise and Fall of Herman Cain


We’ve all come to know this story, so I won’t go into tons of sordid detail here.

The story of Herman Cain and his presidential primary bid is a wild tale, but a quick one.

In fact, the whole thing took place in just a matter of months.

What happened?

In early September the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza became a sensation almost overnight, spiking in the polls and gaining wildly in popularity.

Thousands rallied around his gregarious personality, and for a while it seemed the “Cain Train” might just keep on picking up steam.

But then it came to a screeching halt.

  • When a handful of women accused him of sexual harassment and assault, it was bad.
  • When another reported a long-term extramarital affair, it got worse.
  • Mix in a bunch of factual flubs and unfortunate remarks on foreign policy issues…and the game was over.

Though he denied most of the allegations (he did admit to knowing the woman who claimed the affair), Cain said the distractions were too great to continue.

He officially suspended his campaign in early December.

What we can learn:

Yes, being charming is critical to getting ahead. But it isn’t everything.

Being a professional is just as important.

  • Being a professional means engaging in respectful behavior with everyone we come across
  • It means thoroughly understanding the topics for which we claim to be an expert and articulating them clearly
  • It means knowing that every single choice we make today – who we associate ourselves with, what we post on Facebook, the bridges we burn – will matter tomorrow

Sure, Cain knew how to rally a crowd…but his charm didn’t excuse him from the rest of the job.

It didn’t excuse him from being a professional.

In the end, it led to his demise.

Screw-up #2: Greece’s Economy Goes Bust

No doubt about it – Greece is in some hot water.

The country faces a crippling economic crisis, with deficit estimates soaring from 3.7% in early 2009 to more than 12% this year.

Needless to say, the Greeks are angry, the rest of the Eurozone is none too pleased about having to step in, and Prime Minister George Papandreou is out.

What happened?

The Greek government has been on a bit of a debt binge over the last decade, living well beyond its means and placing a huge strain on the country’s economy.

Many believe that successive Greek governments consistently misreported the country’s official economic statistics to keep within the Eurozone’s monetary guidelines.

When the economic crisis hit, Greece had nowhere to hide and no money to dig itself out.

What we can learn:

It feels obvious, but many of us – as individuals or as part of organizations – are guilty of the same thing as Greece.

We spend more than we bring in.

Sometimes we even know we’re going to do it ahead of time.

We pass budgets we know we can’t meet and hope that things just go our way.

We know the score but pray it’ll somehow fix itself – that a big donation will come in, that the economy will heal itself, that our credit card balance will be forgiven…or forgotten…by our debtors.

Wrong. Individual and organizational stability relies on realistic projections and planning.

It means spending within our means.

And when things go awry, it means facing it head on.

It means swallowing hard, doing what we have to do, cutting what we have to cut, to make it better.

Oh, and it means knowing that lying about it doesn’t help.

Screw-up #3: The Indianapolis Colts Lose Big

To the dismay of Colts fans everywhere, the team has shown up to every game with the highest of hopes, and come home with the same result: a loss.

As I write this their record is 0-13…that’s zero wins and 13 losses.

Ouch. (Double ouch when you consider this same team won the Superbowl just a few years ago).

Even if they get a win in the few remaining weeks (many think this won’t happen), playoff contention hopes have been crushed – along with the spirits of thousands of fans.

What happened?

Two words: Peyton Manning. Two more words: Not There.

Sure, there are other reasons behind the abysmal record.

But ask anyone who knows anything about the situation and the quarterback’s pesky preseason neck fusion surgery – which has kept him benched all year – tops the list.

What we can learn:

It’s a common trap.

When an organization or company relies on one person to carry the leadership load, it is at risk.

When one person has the bounty of historical knowledge, the majority of the relationships, the only true sense of what happens on a day-to-day basis, that organization is in jeopardy.

It doesn’t matter who it is – a founder, a board member, a well-intended executive.

The organization must have policies and procedures in place that will keep it running no matter who sits in the seats.

  • It must allow its stakeholders to know many, not few, of its members.
  • It must instill confidence in the institution as a whole.
  • It must document anything that matters.

Rely on one single person for success and you’re in trouble.

Because that person won’t be there one day.

And then where will you be?

Let’s wrap this up…

Look back on the year and you’ll find plenty of screw-ups – and successes – to learn from.

This week, think about what you’ve learned from others.

Think about what you’ve learned from your own.

Then…think about how you’ll use them all to make next year more successful than ever.

Now, go do good…and do it well.

PS – what are your favorite screw-ups from around the world this past year?

Post it here so we can all learn from them…

2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned From the Year’s Best Screw-Ups

  1. Mark says:

    I choose to do my learning on purpose and completely at will since I never make msitakes.

  2. Emily says:

    I wish I was like Mark… unfortunately, I think I made the biggest mistake in my new job last week and it was a common one that so many people make. I was talking about people and aspects of my job in a negative light without taking consideration who might be around me.

    I hardly EVER do this in a public place and I got caught. The Board President for my national organization was sitting right behind me. Needless to say, it got back to the national office.

    The timing was particularly bad because the board had just had a meeting where the CEO was giving my work as the new Executive Director a tremendous amount of praise. Our chapter was serving as a model for others around the country and then I stuck my big fat foot in my mouth.

    Their responsibility was to do a better job at what they do, but mine was to keep my mouth shut until the best people and opportunity presented itself. Sometimes frustration takes over, but it’s exactly those times that strategy is most important.

    I guarantee that is a mistake I will NOT be making again!

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