This week I am sharing some of the insights and inspirations from my interview with Olympic Gold Medal winners Mark Tewksbury and Debbie Muir.  Debbie, Mark, and I will be among the speakers at the upcoming XL Leadership Summit this February in Vancouver.  We decided to get a head start and strike up the conversation now. I’m so glad we did.  To hear the interview in its entirety, click here or to read a transcript of the interview, click here.

Higher Quality Mistakes

As Debbie, Mark and I spoke about high performing teams and the relationship between high performing individuals and their teammates, Debbie said something that struck me as brilliant.  She said that on a synchronized swimming team (Debbie was a syncho swimmer and coach), it’s ok to make mistakes because as you make mistakes, you learn.  The challenge is to apply the learning so you don’t make the same mistakes again.  Instead, you always get to a “higher quality mistake.”

Isn’t that a brilliant concept!? Click to tweet it. You should be proud and supportive of your teammates when they make a higher quality mistake, because that demonstrates progress and creates a new opportunity for learning.

As an individual, you can be secure in knowing that your teammates won’t isolate or ridicule you when you make higher quality mistakes. I think this is a fantastic concept and a key to creating a high performance team. It creates the space for you to strive, to take risks, and to fail—the room for courage that is required to excel.

This idea is closely related to a topic I have written about before…the importance of getting away from a culture of “holding each other accountable,” and moving to a model where team members hold themselves accountable.  In that version, your role as a team member is to help your teammates to live up to their personal commitments.  In the first case, when you see your role as holding others accountable, it creates a “gotcha” mentality that spirals downward when the inevitable slips and mistakes happen.  When you view your role as helping your teammates, it creates a very different dynamic.

This kind of trust and support doesn’t come immediately or without effort.  Debbie believes it’s important to invest in this level of teamwork by starting with a session where everybody learns about each other. You need to focus on the qualities and uniquenesses that each person brings to the team—beyond their individual skills.  That allows you to understand each other’s strengths and how they think.  It creates a tolerance for how others learn and how they fix their mistakes. It allows you to see if somebody is going into a decline and to help them out.

Putting the Idea to Work

How can you apply this idea to your team? Try answering these questions.

  • What am I holding myself accountable for? What do I need to deliver to do my part for the team?
  • How do I learn? How do I think about mistakes? How can my teammates support me when I make a mistake?
  • How do my teammates learn differently than me? What can I do to be tolerant and supportive of different ways of learning?


I’m going to hold myself accountable to Debbie’s idea of “higher quality mistakes, ” and I’m going to look for chances to congratulate my teammates on new, better, more sophisticated mistakes.   I hope you will too.


For more information or to register for the XL Leadership Summit, click here.

Further Reading

Making Mistakes a Safer Teacher

How to Increase Accountability

How to Decrease Accountability