Developing A Philosophy Of Failure (Part 2)

In Part One of this article I explained why it was important to develop a philosophy around the ways we approach, handle, and learn from failure. In this second part, I will offer six questions to aid in the process of developing our own philosophy of failure.

I wish we talked about failure more than we do in student leadership development circles. Perhaps it’s because of the tragic tales that emerge from students having to step down from leadership positions because of some type of moral failure or fatal flaw.

That’s not the kind of failure I’m addressing here. I’m not talking about those deep, dark secrets or sins that disqualify someone from leadership.

I’m thinking about the time when Bobby forgot to bring the grill to the cookout. Or the time Susie didn’t communicate with parents that the retreat included skydiving. It’s the mistakes and failures that come from a lack of experience. Some of it can be avoided. Some of it we have to learn from. That’s why I recommend we create a philosophy of failure in our student leadership development process.


Here are six questions that we need to ask ourselves before we encounter that inevitable mistakes and failures that will occur throughout the student leadership year.

1. Are you willing to let your student leaders fail/make mistakes?

I don’t wish for failure, but I don’t hide from it either. The simple fact is they’re “student” leaders. This means they’re learning. They’re going to try some things that will probably be less than perfect (great, average, poor, disaster). They learn from both success and failure. But the lessons learned from failure/mistakes are remembered longer.

I love it when an activity or event goes well. But if the priority is leadership development, then we’ll leave room for failure and mistakes. Not big ones, but the little ones that come from a lack of experience and perspective. Students will remember the lessons from their failures long after they’ve forgotten about the effort it took to be successful.

2. What types of failure/mistakes will you allow? What types will you not allow?

For example, any activity or event that might put people or your organization at risk should be avoided. You might also want to keep an eye on how your student leaders handle and spend budget dollars. You may find that a student’s leadership is actually hurting the team or lowering the involvement of other students. If that’s the case, you’ll need to find another place for that student to serve.

Also, I would say you need to decide what failures or mistakes aren’t going to be tolerated. Ever! Moral failure, causing harm to others or yourself, character-issues, and anything that goes against the policies of your organization – these are the types of behaviors that immediately disqualify someone from leadership. We may initially assume our students already know these things. But we must be explicit with them and clearly line out the difference between mistakes we learn leadership from and the mistakes we have to leave leadership over.

3. How will you explain the possibility of failure/mistakes by student leaders to your leaders?

While you are working toward success, you must be realistic about failure. If the purpose and process is the development of student leaders, preparing them to grow in their personal leadership capacities, we must be willing to give them room to develop. Communication at the start of this process with the leaders of your organization is vital. Don’t surprise them with this. Take some time to lay out what you are hoping to accomplish and the parameters you have put in place. While you aren’t hoping for failure or mistakes, let them know you are planning for it.

4. How will you prepare your student leaders for failure/mistakes?

Your student leaders are going to be afraid to fail. This may keep them from making decisions or moving forward. Your role is to alleviate some of that fear. You can share from your own experience and assure them that mistakes are part of the process. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University professor, has done extensive research on the difference between students who focus on performance goals versus students who have learning goals.

“Students for whom performance is paramount want to look smart even if it means not learning a thing in the process. For them, each task is a challenge to their self-image, and each setback becomes a personal threat. So they pursue only activities at which they’re sure to shine—and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish in any endeavor. Students with learning goals, on the other hand, take necessary risks and don’t worry about failure because each mistake becomes a chance to learn.” (Stanford Magazine. Online)

5. How far are you willing to allow student leaders to fail/make mistakes before you step in?

Your philosophy should differentiate between the areas you’ll give students more room to fail and areas where you’ll step in quickly.

6. What process will you use to evaluate and learn from failure/mistakes with your student leaders?

Consider this: student leaders who don’t fail in something every once in awhile probably aren’t learning anything. They are succeeding to the level of their competence, but aren’t being pushed to try something new or attempt a new challenge. If they’re afraid of failing, it will have a direct impact on their ability to lead. They may tend to make decisions that ensure that they don’t look bad. They may avoid any situation where they can’t control the outcome. With that type of mindset, they won’t be able to lead, they’ll only be willing to acquiesce to the path of least resistance.

I encourage student leaders to evaluate every event. If they learn from the failures and mistakes now, then we’ve turned it into an opportunity to learn and grow. If they learn to value excellence, they won’t fear evaluation.

Your comments are welcome: What is your philosophy of failure when it comes to developing leaders in your organization?

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