[November 4, 2019] If there is one thing I learned as a leader, it was that it’s not about what I did that I regret, it’s what I didn’t do. During my travels and meeting folks all over the world, I had the opportunity to discuss what leaders like and dislike. Often the conversation turns to leader regrets.
“Twenty years from now, you’ll be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do,” – Mark Twain, American writer, humorist, entrepreneur
From my experience with leaders from all walks of life, I put together a shortlist of those things I heard most often. No, this is not a scientific poll. I didn’t even write them down until now. At the time, I didn’t think much of it until a few years ago just before I retired. Maybe my thinking was too future-oriented to be thinking about regrets, but looking back upon my discussions, I now see that many leaders expressed regrets.
Here is my list of 10 things leaders regret the most:
- Showing enough moral courage to act at the right time with the right behavior
- Spending more time with family (especially the spouse) and friends
- Joining the U.S. military or making a career of it for those who did
- Being better at mentoring and coaching others
- Trusting subordinates and family members more
- Staying in better physical health
- Joining a church or synagogue and actively living it
- Learning more about the history of their nation (particularly true of Americans)
- Being true to yourself, being authentic
- Being more honest, open, and humble
A middle-aged Iraqi colonel told me one day while we were alone that he regretted that he did not stand up to Saddam Hussein during the dark days of the dictatorship. “Disgust” was the word he used to describe himself. He was, in his mind, a coward, and that is not how “men” act when given a choice. He chose wrong. Regrets like this were common, and I found those who talked with me about their lives to be very revealing and unexpectedly honest.
Surprisingly, none of the leaders that I spoke to regretted that they would someday die. I think the reason is that they had lived a life full of responsibility, had succeeded, and therefore had a full life. There may have been a sense of proper balance in their lives. That is why my list of ten might not agree with what most folks regret.