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Mistakes—even those with far-reaching consequences—are not only a natural and inevitable part of work; they are also vital for the development of good leaders. As the Turkish sage Nasreddin said (circa the 13th century), “good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions.” If we fire employees every time they make a decision that reaps negative consequences, it won’t be long before poor judgment becomes the defining feature of a company’s leadership.
That is not to say that such situations as ESPN and the Jeremy Lin headline debacle are cut and dried. All parties deserve our empathy, if not our sympathy—and that includes Jeremy Lin, the Asian-American community, the ill-fated headline-writer Anthony Federico, and the ESPN executives who are responsible for protecting the integrity of their brand.
But issuing knee-jerk terminations for honest mistakes that go public puts a company on a very slippery slope. If employees know they run the risk of a pink slip every time they slip up, it doesn’t matter how much lip service management pays to thinking outside the box and taking risks. Every employee in his or her right mind will play it safe.
When viewed in isolation we’ll never know for sure whether most mistakes truly are honest or whether they are a symptom of deeper character flaws. But repeated mistakes tell another story, a story that indicates a pattern. Perhaps the best practice is one based on the mantra of “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice—you’re fired!”