Many years ago, I was at a New York Philharmonic concert with my husband. Isaac Stern was performing, and given his age, I was thrilled to be in the audience. I had a similar reaction each time I watched Leonard Bernstein conduct in his later years. I thought each performance might be his last.
In the middle of the second movement of the first piece, Stern, seated next to the conductor, just stopped playing. Literally. A hush fell over the auditorium. The orchestra’s sound petered out – instrument by instrument. The audience had that “what just happened?” look.
Then, Stern took his violin off his chin, turned to the audience and said, ever so calmly, “I am not doing this piece justice. I am not doing the composer justice. And, I am certainly not doing you, the audience, justice.” Then he turned to the conductor and said, “Let’s start this piece from the very beginning,” and the orchestra did.
That incident has stayed with me. One of the world’s foremost violinists made a mistake (frankly, I did not even know he had made one) and then he acknowledged it. More than that, though, he created an opportunity for a do-over and showed a level of humanity that was startling and appealing and deeply moving.
I have to say that for the rest of that evening, I did not hear much music. I was too struck by the response to the mistake made. I have reflected on that incident time and time again but I did not really internalize it. I did not understand its real meaning. Until recently.
Since I became a college president two years ago, I have made mistakes, plenty of them and of a wide-ranging sort. The taxonomy of mistakes should be familiar to anyone involved in higher education: I made bad hires (some of them where I should have known better). I failed to fire people quickly enough and had to pay literally and figuratively for the delay, including in ways I did not anticipate. I was tone deaf to certain problems (commonly interpersonal disputes within departments), and that led to some mistakes. And I made rookie mistakes, too, like not seating a Board Chair next to the Governor at an event.
Leaders make mistakes; it is inevitable. When I share my leadership mistakes with others within and outside the academy, the commonly repeated response is non-judgmental: learn from them and in so doing, avoid making the same mistakes again. True enough but that is hardly the whole story.
Learning from mistakes is largely a private act (the benefits of which may be public later but not in a direct way). My mistakes are usually very public. What I have come to appreciate is the importance of how one responds to one’s mistakes – publicly. I have discovered – albeit after the fact – that I have sometimes ended up making two mistakes – the original one and then the one reflected in my response.
My responses to mistakes covered the landscape. Sometimes I was too defensive. Sometimes I was slow to admit an error. Sometimes I was humorless. Sometimes I was overly remorseful. And sometimes, I just kept rehashing and rehashing the mistake out loud, instead of moving on. To be sure, I did get it right on many occasions, but often without knowing why.
I should have learned from Isaac Stern. Because of a recent incident, which I will now describe, I think I finally have.
At Commencement this May, before an overflowing audience, we awarded an honorary degree to a remarkable individual who was both a professional colleague and a personal friend. In addition to being an award-winning journalist, she had a powerful story to tell about navigating life’s exigencies. This was an important moment. There I was, in my academic garb, reading that magic language that officially confers a doctoral degree -- “By the power vested in me by the Board of Trustees…”.
When I got to the part about awarding a Doctor of Humane Letters, something happened. Instead of reading the language written (clearly written) in the script, I said, “I hereby confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Lettuce...” Yes really. It sounded like I was awarding a Doctorate of Romaine Lettuce – as in salad.
I realized the mistake instantly; so did the audience. There were odd laughs. So, I turned to the degree recipient and said that I had done a real disservice to her and to the importance of an honorary degree, and I wanted to take it from the top, whereupon I repeated the magic words again – thankfully without mistakes.
The whole incident could have ended there but it didn’t. I kept talking and laughing about the incident that entire Sunday afternoon.
When the time came for closing remarks at Commencement, I began by saying, “No, I will not be mentioning salad or any other food group.” At the reception and later that evening, I kept referencing the incident, even calling myself the salad president. In an email thank you later that evening to those who had organized the Commencement weekend, I wrote (virtually verbatim):
Lettuce (sic) remember the glorious day that was had
by our students and their families; we made memories today.
What was interesting was that people liked the mistake and they liked my response to it. They found it humanizing and they appreciated that I joked about it. I fully expected to see my desk filled with heads of lettuce on Monday morning. And I would have liked that. Rather than bemoaning the mistake (which would have been my natural inclination), I was able to embrace it and was better for it.
Clearly, not all responses to mistakes call for humor or a Mulligan. In fact, sometimes that is precisely the wrong response. But what is true is that we need to be more mindful of how we respond to mistakes because we will not stop making them. Instead, we can get better at responding to them.
Recently, there have been a series of articles in the medical literature and popular press about medical mistakes – which are also inevitable. And, when these mistakes are made, patients and their families are rightly angry, very angry and very disappointed. These mistakes have real consequences – physically and emotionally and economically. Increasingly, health care providers are admitting to, and then apologizing for, their errors. Heartfelt and honest apologies. And the most fascinating thing about this new approach: lawsuits against hospitals and health professionals have declined, apparently as a direct result.
No one expects leaders to be perfect. But, Isaac Stern demonstrated what has taken me more than a decade to internalize: the real opportunity for a leader is in how we respond to the inevitable mistakes we make.
So, in addition to remembering the Isaac Stern story, I plan on remembering how I conferred a salad degree – a Doctor of Humane Lettuce. It might turn out to be the best degree I will ever have the privilege of conferring.
Karen Gross has been president of Southern Vermont College since 2006, and professor of law at New York Law School since 1984.