Embracing Ignorance, Error, & Fallibility [PDF]

Competencies for Leadership of Effective Services

John O’Brien


The greatest barriers to community living are not inside people with severe handicaps or in the nature of community life but in the way necessary resources are organized. As long as those who design and govern human services wait for people with handicaps and ordinary citizens to get ready to live together, they will contribute to unnecessary isolation. As soon as they exercise leadership in creating opportunities and designing personalized assistance everyone will begin to learn how to be a community which is competent to support all its members. The ability to learn from experiences of ignorance, error, and fallibility builds capable leaders.

This paper is based on what I have learned from people who are developing effective human services and draws on methods for managing complex social systems which are emerging in other fields. It introduces ignorance, error, and fallibility as teachers; outlines the contributions of leadership in complex systems; presents three examples of learning by embracing ignorance, error, and fallibility; discusses some reasons these facts of life may be difficult to acknowledge; and identifies some implications for the design and governance of services and service systems.