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Failures, Missteps and Discovery: Why Leaders Should Embrace Mistakes

If you want to succeed as a leader, get comfortable with failing.

This concept is a whole lot easier said than done. Platitudes abound in organisations about the learning arising from failure. And yet, when push comes to shove, many organisational cultures demonstrate a serious preoccupation with success. Add the short term (often myopic) focus on bottom line results and it’s no wonder failing gets a hard rap in most companies.

This leadership approach has serious limitations.

Not allowing a certain degree of failure in your organisation impedes learning opportunities.
It kills creative thinking.
It prevents a growth mind-set.
And, it exposes you to being blindsided by your competitors, because you didn’t take risks.

Think about anything you’ve ever mastered in your life, like riding a bike for starters. You failed, you fell over and you floundered long before you reached mastery.

Anything important you’ve discovered about yourself, others or your world probably followed a botch-up of some kind or another.

Why would it be any different in the world of business?

According to new research from a pair of economists from Stanford and the University of Michigan (Francine Lafontaine and Kathryn Shaw), failed entrepreneurs are far more likely to be successful in their second go-around, provided they try again.

It’s what we do with failure when it happens, that counts.

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Here are 6 ways leaders can have a healthy relationship with failure:

1. When mistakes happen, change your response. Instead of reacting with anger or frustration – or worse yet, going on a witch hunt – ask, “What did we just learn?” Non-judgemental, inquisitive and curious is the vibe you want to channel when it comes to stuff-ups.

Failure can teach us not only what we are doing wrong, but how to do it right the next time. There are a myriad of reasons behind a failure (just as there is with success). Your focus should be determining whether the failure was due to process, people or something else.

2. De stigmatise failure (especially first time failures) by being loud and vocal about the learnings that failure affords. Formally support learning from mistakes by instigating regular reflection and review of projects, especially using data-driven approaches.

3. Structure projects to allow some experimentation (and therefore normalise failure). ‘Ooch’, as Heath and Heath espouse in their book, Decisive. ‘Oooching’ allows you to run little experiments to test your theories. Rather than jumping into an initiative boots’n all, we dip our toes in. This way, the inevitable failures won’t bring the company down in one fell swoop. Rather, ‘ooching’ lowers the impact of mistakes at the same time, bringing you the upsides and insights associated with experiments.

4. Adopt a growth mindset towards yourself and those you lead. Carol Dweck’s research is compelling. When giving praise, focus on effort, rather than intelligence. For example, “I noticed you put a lot of effort into that project, well done.” As opposed to – “You did well, you’re really good at these types of projects.” Research shows people are more inclined to try new things when a growth mindset is adopted i.e. praising for effort. Conversely, people stay within their comfort zones when praised for intelligence, rather than effort.

5. Model what you want to see in others. ‘Failure tolerant’ leaders openly admit their own mistakes rather than covering them up or shifting the blame.  Developing a healthy and productive relationship with failure starts with self. If you see failure as an inherently bad thing, your teams will pick this up, regardless of what you say. Admit your goof-ups publicly (especially with those you lead) and highlight the insights and changes you will make as a result of those failures.

6. Tolerate failure but address repeated mistakes and patterns. Looking closely at the root cause of failure helps us to determine the ‘good mistakes’ from the bad ones that we want to stamp out. The same mistake made over and over without course correction is another matter altogether. There’s a mile between blatant sloppiness and a mistake made by trying something new. Seek to determine the difference by powerful questions and analysis of root causes through data and intuition.

Whilst no one I know genuinely enjoys failing or sets out to fail, it’s healthy to accept it as an integral part of the process when aiming for a breakthrough.

As Richard Branson once said, “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”

How have you helped your teams (and yourself) to develop a healthy relationship with failure? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave your comments below.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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