How Leaders Can Learn From Failure


In my last post I talked about failure and asked the question, “Why is it that with all that is written about the benefit of failure so many leaders struggle to allow people or organizations to  “fail successfully”?

The following reasons come to mind (and thanks to many for the email suggestions):

  1. “It has to be somebody’s fault.” Many organizations fear failure and make attempts to cover up mistakes or failed initiatives. To compensate for their fears, leaders often create a culture of blame. Something goes wrong, and immediately the leadership looks for someone or something to blame. Nobody takes personal responsibility; it’s much easier to find someone to blame. If there’s a problem, a scapegoat must be found to bear the blame.
  2. “We expect perfectionism.” Although most leaders certainly grasp the possibility if not the inevitability of failure, they still don’t like the concept. In their hearts they simply cannot tolerate anything but an absolute zero-defects mentality. They seem to believe that if their people really try they will  not fail. The leaders are either embarrassed by failure, too proud to admit failure, or do not want the “mess” that some failures can cause.

Whatever the root cause of such an executive mind-set, it creates crushing, unrealistic expectations for leaders and their employees.

What’s the answer? Rather than setting unrealistic expectations, leaders should expect people to fail and be ready to forgive, learn and move on. Leaders can help an organization learn from its mistakes and push ahead to new innovation and creativity. John Maxwell, among others, calls this idea, “Failing Forward.” People learn from each failure, and the lessons learned are quickly channeled into modifying the plan, design or strategy.

Do you create an environment where your people feel they can fail forward? If you do, how do you implement what you learn?

Or, do you set unrealistic expectations and find yourself upset over failure? How do you learn from mistakes?


2 Responses to “How Leaders Can Learn From Failure”

  1. Thought provoking post, Wayne. I hope I create a team atmosphere where we all work together and collectively succeed or “fall forward,” balancing humility with the courage to be creative and try new ideas. I’ll adopt the “fail forward” terminology for future not-so-successful endeavors. Thanks!

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