Developing A Philosophy Of Failure (Part 1)

The most effective leadership development processes give people the opportunity to learn to lead by leading.

Even if you spend an enormous amount of time preparing students for leadership, you’ll never know what kind of leader they will be until they start leading. And like most things, they won’t get it perfect on their first try (or their second…or third…).


So the question is how will you create a leadership culture that gives students the opportunity to lead, yet also provides the space for them to fail and make mistakes? We’re not just talking about setting up chairs in the wrong configuration. It’s more than forgetting to order enough food for an event. We can fix that quickly and no one needs to be the wiser.

This is leadership. When a leader makes a mistake everyone who is following the leader feels it.

In fact, one of the biggest arguments against instilling the value of leadership within student leadership culture will be the concern over the consequences that may occur because of a student leader’s failure or mistakes.

This is an area that can derail your student leadership process if you’re not ready for it. You don’t have to go looking for failure. You simply need to be prepared for it when it happens. Because a student leadership culture that doesn’t know what to do with failure will dumb down the leadership development process in order to minimize the mistakes made by students in leadership training.

Perhaps it’s because people are afraid of it or they don’t know how to handle it properly. Simply hoping failure doesn’t happen is not a good strategy. In fact, avoiding failure and the inevitable mistakes that will occur can actually diminish the effectiveness of your leadership development process.

Most people don’t like to deal with failure because it’s messier than success. That’s why we’ll invest in a clean cut leadership development program that teaches our students about the skills, perspectives, and character that’s necessary for leadership, but we’re hesitant to put them into real life situations where those factors will be tested.

You end up with a leadership development program that wants to protect them from mistakes more than it wants to prepare them for the future.

This is why I often liken the process of student leadership development to a leadership laboratory. In a lab there are controls in place to keep the experiments in check. Those who work in a laboratory track and measure what works and what doesn’t. They’re actually able to make progress through failed attempts. They expect to fail. Failure helps to remove contingencies and validate theories. Failure is information—we label it failure, but it’s more like, “This didn’t work, I’m a problem solver, and I’ll try something else.” While people are often disappointed by failure in a laboratory setting, they aren’t derailed by it.

In a culture that values leadership, within the guiding oversight of a mentoring relationship, students are handed varying levels of responsibility that require leadership (not just working and not just facilitating). It might be safer, quicker, and easier if the adults led this responsibility themselves. But that’s not the purpose of this process. This is an opportunity to develop leaders – those who move from being involved to becoming influential.

The formula is simple: Responsibility + Risk = Reward.

There is always some level of risk when it comes to leadership. If we’re honest, we run the risk of failure and mistakes at all levels of leadership within our organizations. No leader is immune. For that reason alone we must focus on helping our students know how to best handle situations that don’t turn out as expected because they messed up or made a poor decision.

Denis Waitley offers this perspective: “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”

In Part Two of this article, I’ll offer six key questions we need to ask in the process of creating our own philosophy of failure.

Your comments are welcome: How do you view and handle failure when it occurs in your organization?

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