Buffalo Bill and learning from mistakes

Yesterday I visited the Buffalo Bill Historic Centre in Cody, Wyoming. I learned a lot of things about the man behind the legend, and something that struck me was the rise and fall of his fortunes. According to the history presented in the exhibits, Buffalo Bill Cody made his fortune many times, but was prone to being swindled out of it by promises of investments that were too good to be true. He invested in many things that lost him his money and one of his musings late in life was that he had “worked hard and had nothing for it”.

So what is the lesson in Buffalo Bill’s life for leaders? Simply this – a good leader learns from his or her mistakes. I am not passing comment on Buffalo Bill and his leadership, as no doubt he was a brilliant showman and had many hundreds of people working for him. However, for some reason, he didn’t seem to learn from his financial mistakes. Here are some of my thoughts:

1 – If something seems too good to be true – you should do your homework before committing to action. As a leader, you should weigh up the pros and cons and take calculated risks. There are many great tools to help you with this, and good risk management is a skill many leaders lack. When projects go awry and cost many hundreds of thousands, it is often because the risks were not clearly articulated and managed. How would things have been different for Mr Cody if he had managed risk differently?

2 – At the end of a project, or a big piece of work you should always review and reflect. Regardless of the outcome, ask yourself if there were things that you could have done differently? As a leader it is easy to move on immediately to the next big thing on your to do list, and forget the lessons from the work you have just finished. Something I have implemented that works well for me is to review at the end of each month – what worked well, what didn’t, and my lessons learned. I turn my lessons learned into actions immediately – before they are forgotten.

3 – Surround yourself with good people, and seek their advice. If Buffalo Bill had a core group of clever advisors, he might not have committed to some of the ventures that cost him dearly. As leaders, it is tempting to believe that we need to have all the answers. Ultimately the buck stops with the leader, but you can gain much from engaging others in your key decisions.

4 – Challenge your own assumptions. Did Buffalo Bill always assume that everyone who pitched a business investment idea was being truthful? Or did he always find the idea of something new and exciting irresistible? What would have been different for him if he had challenged these assumptions?

What other lessons can we learn from the life of Buffalo Bill?

Contact Ros for leadership development, coaching and facilitation or visit Shaping Change at

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2 replies on “Buffalo Bill and learning from mistakes”

I have learned from Harv Eker that we all have a built in financial “thermostat”. We are somewhat programmed to maintain a certain level of income. If we fall below that level, we will figure out how to make more. If we go above, we will figure out (not intentionally) how to lose it. Unless we learn what the programming of our thermostats are, we can’t change it to reset it higher. Perhaps this is what was happening with Mr. Cody.

Good advice.

Excellent points, Ros. I especially like #2, debriefing, which can lift your performance from good to great. It’s so important to evaluate what went well and what could have been improved. But in our rush to the next goal, so many of us skip this critical step. It helps to build it into the culture of the organization from the giddy-up. Make it part of how we do everything around here.

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