"Mistakes are a part of being human. Appreciate your mistakes for what they are: precious life lessons that can only be learned the hard way. Unless it's a fatal mistake, which, at least, others can learn from."
-- Al Franken 

The business world is littered with mistakes. Think of any CEO you admire -- someone with a bunch of great achievements and a successful company he or she is running. Odds are, they made many mistakes along the way -- some of which ended up leading them to success via an unexpected route and some that simply taught important lessons.

man in collared shirt slapping forehead and wincing

Image source: Getty Images.

Here are three CEOs on their biggest mistakes.

Richard Branson: Virgin soda

In 1994, Richard Branson, founder and CEO of Virgin, launched Virgin Cola in the U.S. As he recalls:

It's fair to say that our launch of Virgin Cola in 1994 was not subtle. Driving a tank through New York's streets before smashing through a wall of Coca-Cola cans certainly created some front-page headlines, which was exactly what we wanted. With Virgin Cola, we felt confident that we could smash our way past Coca-Cola and Pepsi, our main competitors. It turned out, however, that we hadn't thought things through. Declaring a soft-drink war on Coke was madness. ... I consider our cola venture to be one of the biggest mistakes we ever made-but I still wouldn't change a thing.

He had been excited at the prospect of toppling Coke with his strong brand but had insufficiently appreciated the brand power and market dominance of Coke and PepsiCo: "We weren't quite prepared for the size or the ferocity of Coca-Cola's response, which included a steep increase in their marketing budget and pressure on distributors not to work with us." He later noted, "I learned only to go into businesses where we were palpably better than all the competition."

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings -- head shot

Reed Hastings. Image source: Netflix.com.

Reed Hastings: Qwikster

In 2011, Netflix CEO and founder Reed Hastings, in recognition of the growth and promise of streaming video, oversaw a plan to split his company in two, which involved spinning off its DVD-by-mail business as "Qwikster." The plan was widely ridiculed, with customers balking at the prospect of paying more for two subscriptions. Qwikster was quickly snuffed out.

Hastings noted: 

I realized, if our business is about making people happy, which it is, then I had made a mistake. ... The hardest part was my own sense of guilt. I love the company. I worked really hard to make it successful, and I screwed up. The public shame didn't bother me. It was the private shame of having made a big mistake and hurt people's real love for Netflix that felt awful.

As you might have noticed, it wasn't a fatal error. Today, Netflix is massive and still growing. Hastings explained:

We weren't going to find an idea or gesture that would make people love us again overnight. We had to earn their trust by being very steady and disciplined. And we had to be careful because we were on probation. We had to stick to what we do well and not lose confidence. I couldn't say for sure we'd recover. But I was confident that our best odds were to be very steady and focus on improving the service.

red Tesla car driving on curvy road

Elon Musk leads Tesla, maker of electric cars. Image source: Tesla.com.

Elon Musk: Hiring the wrong people

Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk had a dramatic reveal when asked at a conference what his biggest mistake has been. As related in Vanity Fair magazine:

There followed a long, rather uncomfortable pause in which he appeared not be able to think of any mistakes at all. But Musk's eventual answer was a surprising one for the scientifically minded entrepreneur: "The biggest mistake, in general, I've made, is to put too much of a weighting on someone's talent and not enough on their personality. And I've made that mistake several times. I think it actually matters whether somebody has a good heart, it really does. I've made the mistake of thinking that it's sometimes just about the brain."

Musk has noted to Glassdoor.com that, "Hiring talented individuals ... is 90% of the solution, as hiring wrong can cost you so much," adding, "We challenge our people leaders to hire people that are better than themselves ... therefore making the company better with each hire."

Many other notable CEOs would agree about the importance of good hiring. Warren Buffett, for example, has explained what he looks for:

You're looking for three things, generally, in a person: intelligence, energy, and integrity. And if they don't have the last one, don't even bother with the first two. I tell them, "Everyone here has the intelligence and energy -- you wouldn't be here otherwise. But the integrity is up to you. You weren't born with it, you can't learn it in school.

Spend a little time reading up on the mistakes of successful people and what they've learned from them and you may be able to avoid a few blunders yourself, or just make smarter decisions.

Selena Maranjian owns shares of Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Netflix, PepsiCo, and Tesla. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.