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Failure Is Essential for All Leaders

We are taught to win, go for the gold, outdo our competitors, make a difference, leave a legacy. Medals, awards, bonuses, pay raises, promotions, profile and celebrations glorify these achievements.

What if we also celebrated failures? One of my clients holds a quarterly meeting and a regular agenda item on the list includes ‘Recent Failures’. Harsh you say? It actually encourages healthy dialogue and moves the needle forward.

The intent is to foster a culture that gives permission to fail. All senior leaders when asked whether they encourage risk taking of course say yes. How often though is this truly the case?

It is human nature not to want to fail. It can be a blow to our ego, we can be chastised, ridiculed and made to feel foolish. Close minded individuals react that way. Sophisticated leaders ask different questions.

It is true in all aspects of life not just the business world, that failure actually promotes self confidence. The primary question we must always ask is what problem are we trying to solve for and what can be learned from these mistakes? We move forward with each and every attempt to improve the world.

Great leadership is a mind set. You need to expect to fail. It’s what you do with this failure. Yes it hurts but then you dust yourself off, pivot, recalibrate and take another crack at solving the problem.

There are organisations and cultures who do get this right. As a company if you truly want to foster the best and the brightest here is what you need to be doing both from an employer and employee perspective.

Employers must adopt these key behaviors:

  1. Create the Stage for Entrepreneurship – Advocate on behalf of your employees or team. Align senior leadership to endorse new ideas.
  1. Do Not Micromanage This stifles creativity and undermines employees’ confidence.
  1. Value Ownership – If you truly want your team to be involved in game changing ways you must grant them the stage to own and run with their new paradigms. Process, procedures and resources should not be obstacles to advancing their cause.
  1. Reward for Risk – Profile and acknowledge your leaders who are bold and go against the norm. This encourages failure and the ongoing spirit and investment to keep forging ahead with disruptive ideas.

Employees Should Embrace These Attributes:

  1. Don’t Seek 100 Percent Alignment – You will never get all your constituents fully aligned. What truly is important is whether you have enough advocacy to help build the necessary platform.
  1. Accept Failure – You initially won’t feel so great and may even be a bit unglued. If you accept this is a normal and even a routine aspect of all game changing initiatives you will more readily be prepared to stand up and try again.
  1. Be Proactive with Your Lack of Engagement – Recognise when you have become bored and disengaged. Think about how you can add value beyond your traditional responsibilities. Go to your boss and make a business case for your proposal.
  1. Surround Yourself With Risk Takers – Be brave, be courageous. This means think strategically about how you can solve for gaps or opportunities in the business. Collaborate with team players who are known for breaking down barriers and adding a unique value proposition.

Failure in essence is a partnership between your organisation, your boss and your own leadership. All parties need to be prepared to cultivate an environment where risk taking accompanied with mistakes and failures along the way culminates in a win win. Organisations prosper by marketing and implementing disruptive ideas and employees remain vested, excited, and loyal to their host organisation.


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