I keep wondering why I didn’t wear my helmet on that nearly fateful sled ride ten winters ago. The videos I’d taken of my sons the day before had been so funny that they insisted I take more the next day with my smartphone. And when my five-year-old son Sava asked me to jump on the sled and shoot a point-of-view (POV) video, I fumbled.

As an adult staff member, you have more experience, more training, more formal education, and a greater ability to reason hypothetically than the young people you’ll be caring for this summer. You were hired, in part, because your experience preparation has endowed you with a heightened sense of safety and risk management. Given my own decades of leadership experience, it’s unconscionable and inexplicable that I failed to put on the helmet I had brought to the slopes that day.

If you type “fail” into the YouTube search box, you’ll see millions of examples of adolescents and adults behaving in idiotic ways. Most of the incidents look more painful than my sledding accident, but none hits home harder. As soon as my son squealed, “Tata, do a POV!” I sat down behind him, thinking, It’s just one run. I don’t need my helmet (the helmet I’d bought for just such an eventuality). I now believe that the adverb just is among the most dangerous in the English language.

We lost control a quarter of the way down the slope and began sliding backwards. I tried in vain to slow us down by dragging my feet. But with one arm wrapped around my son (who was wearing his helmet, of course) and the other crazily attempting to shoot the video, my attempts to control our descent were futile. We narrowly missed the trunk of a towering white pine and slammed sideways into a chain-link fence, narrowly missing one of the galvanized metal posts that held it in place. My bruised thigh could easily have been a severe concussion. Sava was shaken but unharmed.

Why Fumble?

In the years since that plunge in topography and judgment, I’ve spent time thinking about how a parent and camp professional with a PhD in child psychology could have brought his helmet to the slopes with the intent of setting a good example for his children, but then lapsed. I’m intrigued by what I perceive to be a universally human vulnerability to fumble.

My keynotes on this topic have focused primarily on how recognizing this vulnerability engenders patience. As part of my presentation, I give audiences 60 seconds to come up with as many underlying causes for making a nearly lethal choice to leave my helmet at the top of the hill. Wise listeners have come up with dozens of responses, all of which fall into six categories. Consider each of them as you reflect on a few serious fumbles you’ve made in your life, what you can learn from those experiences, and how the process of intelligent failure could double your value as a youth leader.

Fumble Origin One: Social Norms

Humans, like other animals, determine how to behave partly as a function of what their peers are doing. Fish school, geese flock, buffalos stampede. And I guess when caregivers look around and no other grown-ups are wearing helmets on the snow-covered 18th green of a municipal golf course, the one who brought the helmet is less inclined to put it on. Consciously or unconsciously, I may have behaved in accord with the other adults on the hill that day. I don’t remember thinking I don’t want to be the only one wearing a helmet. In fact, I’m usually proud to be one of the few adults wearing a life jacket in whatever watercraft I’m enjoying. However, there’s no denying that social norms shape our behavior.

Fumble Origin Two: History

I grew up sledding Calvin-and-Hobbes style with my neighbor Matthew Drivas and my brother Byron. We would trek into the woods behind my house — sans helmets, of course — and drag our three-man toboggan to the top of the highest hill we could find. Not only was the goal to go as fast as possible, but we did rock-paper-scissors to determine who would win the front berth. And because none of us ever hurt ourselves, despite all of the close encounters with trees and boulders, I was lulled into complacency from a tender age. In my personal history, people had not been injured sledding. Ergo, there was no reason to believe sledding with my boys on a golf course 30 years later would be any different.

Fumble Origin Three: Appearance

How we look matters. Aphorisms, such as beauty is only skin deep, may be true, but we still care. Witness the ski-boat drivers at your camp who protest donning a life jacket because of the funny tan lines and bulky look they create. Even today’s style of casually untucked shirttails, knee-length shorts, worn jeans, and tousled hair are intentional fashion decisions, designed to create an attractively disheveled appearance. Perhaps my choice to leave my helmet on the ground had something to do with wanting to look carefree; perhaps not. Either way, fashion decisions can undermine safe practices.

Fumble Origin Four: Today’s Data

More immediate than a history of behavior are the feelings of invincibility that come from the data directly in front of us. Both of my sons had sledded down the hill that day over and over without incident. So had dozens of other kids and their parents. That day’s data led to one conclusion: helmets are superfluous. Most smokers will say they know someone who has been smoking their whole life but has not gotten cancer. Psychologists call this the availability heuristic. We are persuaded by the compelling examples in front of our noses and ignore aggregate historical data. Even when those data are compellingly clear. Had I thought about it, I would have considered that head injuries in downhill sports are more common in participants than in spectators and more common among non-helmet-wearers than helmet-wearers.

Fumble Origin Five: Impulsivity

When my son asked me to hop on the sled with him, I was captured by the spontaneous novelty of the idea. As l previously noted, I used the perilous adverb just, as in I’ll hop on the sled just this once or I’ll just sit in the back and be in charge of the video, or even I’ll just drag my heels if we need to slow down. And so, with the eagerly anticipated (but risky) behavior minimized in our minds, we then predict the odds of something going wrong as acceptably low. My self-statement was in the same category as I’m just going to the corner store, so I don’t need to put on my seatbelt or I’m just making this single cut with the chop saw, so I don’t need to put on safety glasses or I’m just going to be at the beach for a little while, so I don’t need sunscreen. Or the bane of my tenure as waterfront director: I’m just hopping in to cool off, so I don’t need a buddy. Using just is a dangerous roll of the dice.

Fumble Six: Excitement

Strong positive and negative emotions can impair judgment. Anatomically, the limbic system (inner brain structures, including the amygdala, thalamus, cingulate gyrus, and hippocampus) literally takes the frontal lobes (the part of the brain right behind the forehead) off-line by blocking the connecting neural pathways. Who cares? Well, we all should, especially when our safety is in question. Strong emotions — especially of the positive variety — are wonderful to experience. We must realize, however, that our hypothetical thinking is crippled in these moments. Whether we’re having an orgasm, a panic attack, or a temper tantrum, we’re not thinking clearly about how A could cause B or result in C and D if we’re not careful. I was so excited to jump on the sled with Sava and crank out a fun selfie-video that I didn’t consider the potential risks to my son, myself, and the people around me.

Fumble Diversity

The goal of exploring these facets of human vulnerability is not only to prevent accidents, but also to fail intelligently after we fumble. Only then can we skillfully nurture the development of wisdom in the young people we serve. My impact against the chain-link fence was powerful, so the bruise on my leg lasted three weeks, but the lasting impact has been on my insight and judgment.

For most of us, it’s a relief to begin the camp season agreeing that no one is perfect; that all staff share a willingness to learn; and that camp is an environment where leaders support their peers’ professional development. Simply recognizing those tenets of healthy organizational culture will go a long way toward everyone’s willingness to lead effectively after a fumble. Like a fumble in football, the defining feature of intelligent failure is the recovery. As the saying goes, “It’s not how you fall, it’s how you get up.”

As the table illustrates, there are different kinds of successes and failures, each with different implications for post-event leadership. For example, consider the fellow staff member who returns to camp from a night off intoxicated. Because that staff member had the skill to perform well (i.e., they knew how to have a relaxing, substance-free night off and return to camp sober), their choice to return intoxicated was a bad choice, not an accident. Recovering a bad choice fumble involves soul searching to discover what pressures influenced the bad choices, such as peer pressure.

One column in the table is left intentionally blank to activate and personalize your learning. Take a moment to jot one example of each type of outcome from your own life. That exercise will give you the best understanding of fumbles and opportunities for intelligent failure.

Leadership Best Practices

Now that you’ve completed the table, consider what the best leaders do.

  1. The best leaders understand their skill set and the limitations of what they can do. By continually evaluating the demands of a situation and their ability to handle it, the best leaders usually avoid lucky breaks.
  2. The best leaders take risks, of course, and make good tries, but they show restraint by not acting way outside their domains of competence. They know when to consult, when to ask for help, and when to make the wise choice of saying no.
  3. The best leaders put forth great effort. By exercising, getting rest, and eating healthy food, the best leaders are able to try their hardest almost all the time. This helps them maximize their success experiences and put forth good tries but minimize willful neglect.
  4. The best leaders are thoughtful. By tempering impulsive reactions and knee-jerk responses to complex situations, the best leaders avoid bad choices, accidents, and near misses.

There are many other qualities of great leadership, of course. Among the most important traits are awareness, effort, and thoughtfulness, as previously noted. Great leaders are not neglectful or foolish. The triad of awareness, effort, and thoughtfulness also maximizes success. All leaders — even bad ones — have some lucky breaks. Mostly, though, they experience success. All leaders also have an occasional honest failure and make a mistake. What then? The answer separates the good from the bad leaders.

Accidents vs. Mistakes

Accidents are typically forgiven. The group is often sympathetic after observing that the leader tried hard and acted within their domain of competence. The group (and the leader) may be disappointed, but the leader’s good faith effort has set a good example, and no one feels duped or abandoned. With accidents, leaders are well served to reflect on what their misstep was, to openly apologize (even if the group has already expressed forgiveness), to make amends (especially if someone was hurt or an important outcome wasn’t achieved), and to think about how to do things better next time.

Mistakes are different. Forgiveness is sometimes not forthcoming. Therefore, the best leaders recover from mistakes by quickly owning them. Laying the responsibility elsewhere, spinning the mistake as a triumph, or pretending there was no mistake are all defensive reactions grounded in the fear that admitting a mistake may cause the group to lose respect for the leader. Ironically, owning mistakes — provided that such mistakes are generally uncommon — causes the group to feel enhanced respect for their leader. Indeed, every member of the group knows that mistakes are human, so this admission humanizes the leader. It also sets a good example for others to follow.

After owning their mistake, the best leaders offer a sincere apology. Delaying this expression of regret only hardens the group’s hearts. By contrast, saying, “I’m sorry that I made this mistake,” provides an opportunity to move ahead, both interpersonally and professionally. The best leaders understand that respect is grounded in relationship. Without a strong interpersonal connection between a leader and their group, great achievements may be kept at bay.

Intelligent Failure

The best leaders also learn. They consult with other leaders, listen carefully to feedback from the group, and hone skills that will help achieve success in similar scenarios. When the group sees that the leader has continued to work toward preventing the same mistake in the future, forgiveness is palatable. Without excessive self-deprecation, great leaders can also revisit the mistake, offer the group a narrative of what transpired and where the misstep was, and address what’s being done to prevent a similar mistake in the future.

Indeed, recounting narratives is a cornerstone of great leadership. The best leaders have, of course, learned from their mistakes. However, they refrain from telling war stories about their mistake-riddled past for two reasons: First, war stories, while dramatic and sometimes entertaining, glorify the mistake. Such glorification may mislead members of the group into believing that they should intentionally make mistakes so they, too, can hold court around the campfire. Second, if war stories become a central feature of how someone leads, it can distort the perceived frequency of mistakes. Members of the group may believe that mistakes are more commonplace than they actually are.

Being a great leader is not a popularity contest. Success is not always the action that brings the group immediate pleasure, especially when the leader is acting in the group’s long-term best interests. Mistakes are unpleasant for both the leader and the group. However, both mistakes and accidents provide the sorts of leadership opportunities that separate the best from the mediocre. The process of owning, apologizing, and learning is healthy for any group. Fumble recoveries give leaders opportunities to show how they earned their position. Indeed, great leaders continuously work to earn the title that goes with their job. No fumble is a failure if you persevere.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you think social norms shape your behavior? How about the behavior of your campers?
  2. What’s something valuable you learned from a mistake you made?
  3. Can you think of a time you witnessed a leader/mentor of yours make a mistake and handle it well? What did that say to you?

Christopher Thurber, PhD, is a board-certified clinical psychologist and the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, an Internet library of educational videos for youth leaders. He is dedicated to positive youth development and has been invited to deliver keynotes, contribute articles, and lead workshops at schools and camps on five continents. His forthcoming book is entitled Fumble. Learn more about Chris’s books, articles, videos, and in-person workshops at DrChrisThurber.com.