The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

Leadership and happy accidents

By celebrating 'happy accidents', we can foster confidence and become better problem-solvers. John Dabell discusses a refreshing and positive view of errors to create a haven for all staff and students.

Everyone makes mistakes. We all stuff up and being wrong is an inescapable part of being alive (Schultz, 2010). Human beings are natural mistake makers - to err is 90% human (Hallinan, 2010). 

Blunders, slip-ups, and oversights happen all the time and they often have negative connotations attached to them. But as victims of excellence, we suffer for our ergonomics and wrongly - people shake their heads and reputations are tarnished. 

Rather than own our mistakes, we distance ourselves from them, disown them, divert them, and push them away or even justify them as being right (Tavris and Aronson, 2020). We don't want to be seen as weak. But not everyone sees mistakes this way.  

The Ross perspective  

Bob Ross, the soft-spoken artist painting happy clouds, trees, and mountains, once famously said, 'Anything we don't like we'll turn into a happy little tree or something; we don't make mistakes, we just have happy accidents.' 

The wisdom of Bob Ross can be applied to the classroom and sharing the learning journey with children, but it can also be applied to school leadership and staff development. School leaders must courageously embrace opportunities and take risks, and this inevitably involves a fair number of professional prangs. 

Happy accidents take the pressure off, foster confidence, and help us become better problem-solvers and critical thinkers

One way of reinventing and reconceptualising these 'mistakes', flops and failures is to see them as positive bumps, growth opportunities or 'happy accidents'. This involves promoting a culture of risk-taking as a way of empowering staff (Hicks, 2020) and we can remind them that accidents do not cost the same for everyone. 

Many mistakes can have temporary or light consequences. In this collaborative culture, the maxim could be 'You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take' (Wayne Gretzky).

‘COOL’ environments

Promoting an organisational culture of welcoming mistakes creates a haven. When staff are given the psychological safety to try and experience productive failure by having a go then 'mistakes' and accidents are normalised. 

To bring about this culture of positive disruption and create the conditions for risk and happy learning, leaders can 'focus on curating 'COOL' environments where people are free to show up with courage, openness, observing, and lightness' (Blignaut, 2022). 

Opening, showing our vulnerabilities, and observing each other gives us the space to find strength and that requires courage. Playing it safe doesn't normally lead to innovations and so to avoid being adrift in a sea of 'could've, would've, should've', (Ahearn, Ford and Wilk 2017) suggest that we need to make 'yes' our default setting rather than no and embrace happy accidents. 

An acceptance of mistake-making as 'normal' can allow everyone to adapt, correct, take risks, and go down a new path. They are a chance to self-assess, see a new perspective, edit, and create something new. They help us to learn, improve and grow. They help to reboot our motivation.  

A culture of risk-taking and growth

When we welcome learning accidents then we remove egos and the fear of being wrong from the equation

Teaching and learning are a serious business but it's also a fun business and that means there is plenty of room to tinker and co-create in trial-and-error. Staff and students need the time and space to explore and experiment. 

It isn't so much the mistake that matters, it is the aftermath and what you do afterwards that counts (Tugend, 2012). Admitting to mistakes can set the stage for an open dialogue with staff and sends a clear message that no one is infallible. Staff need to know that when they make a mistake, which is inevitable, it won't define who they are. 

Not all mistakes are happy accidents though, especially those repeated and resilient errors that hinder development. They need a different and more direct approach that is competency-based and assessed.

We should welcome mistakes as a sign of willingness to try new things. It shows your school that you are not satisfied with the status quo and sometimes mistakes lead to new ways of thinking. 

We need to make our schools places that welcome risk-taking in the name of learning and expect and celebrate the happy accidents that will inevitably show up where great learning is happening. We need to have the freedom to have accidents at school because this gives everyone the freedom to grow (Cruz, 2020). 

When we welcome learning accidents then we remove egos and the fear of being wrong from the equation. This sends a powerful message to all learners, that when we open ourselves up to so-called failure, we are opening to an entire range of possibilities and potentials.  

The power of accidents 

Happy accidents take the pressure off, foster confidence, and help us become better problem-solvers and critical thinkers. 

All staff have accidents as part of their professional growth and great leaders allow them to because they give rise to a healthy self-compassion, help them take more positive risks and give everyone an expansion mindset.

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