I wanted to share one of my class lectures from last week. My class is Leadership & Organizational Behavior, and we always talk about what goes into making leaders and organizations successful, but I had a sudden thought one afternoon and decided the next class we’d be discussing failure. I asked my students to think of one goal they had – maybe a job they wanted after graduation or a business they want to start. Then I told them to list all the ways they could fail to attain that goal. They all looked a little hesitant, but soon everyone was thinking of hundreds of ways they could fail to achieve their goals.

Then one of my students remarked “Well, this is depressing…” and I said “It is! But, it’s also useful. Why do you think we should talk about failure?”

We decided that failure is a constant. Everyone fears failure. No one wants to fail, and so often our strategy to prevent failure is to ignore it, pretend like it doesn’t exist. Instead of being successful, more often than not, the “it doesn’t exist” strategy causes us to pull the wool over our own eyes and blindly, suddenly fall into mistakes that ultimately can cause failure.

Instead, talking about failure can help us to prevent mistakes, overcome obstacles, and even learn something when we inevitably make mistakes. We read John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership in my course, and in The Law of Navigation, Maxwell explains that we need to be very detailed in our planning – plotting out each small success in the path to achieving our ultimate goal – but we also have to think about all the obstacles in our path. If we forget to plan for mistakes, problems, and obstacles, then even a small problem can throw our jouney off course.

The other thing about failure is that it’s not always a bad thing. Failure often teaches us more than we could have learned if we had been successful. Failure generates new ideas and encourages innovation.

Think of the coyote and the road runner. The coyote failed over and over again, and every time he recovered, learned from his mistake, and developed a new strategy, one that he could not have imagined before the previous failed strategy. NASA has a saying “We never punish error. We only punish the concealment of error.” That simple phrase says volumes. Mistakes will be made. To be human is to err. But we must learn from those mistakes in order to grow.

I’ve found several resources – blogs, articles, and videos – talking about failure and its benefits:

The Harvard Business Review interviewed several OB experts asking them what they think are the biggest mistakes of leaders (http://blogs.hbr.org/video/2010/08/the-biggest-mistake-a-leader-c.html). What is the benefit of this? Well if we know how leaders fail, then we as leaders can avoid those mistakes.

Sean Silverthorne adds his 2 cents, saying that leaders fail by losing their humility and forgetting their values (http://www.bnet.com/blog/harvard/the-surprising-reason-leaders-fail/8182?tag=drawer-container%3Bload-section-river).


Mitch Ditkoff of Blogging Innovation explains that there is no innovation without failure (so true!), and several individuals who would be considered influential leaders agree with him (http://www.business-strategy-innovation.com/wordpress/2010/09/rethinking-failure/).

JK Rowling talks about failure in her commencement speech to the Harvard graduating class of 2008. In this speech, she talks about how failure can strip you to your core, make what’s really important stand out, and cause you realize who you really are (http://harvardmagazine.com/commencement/the-fringe-benefits-failure-the-importance-imagination).

Ken Robinson, talking about schools and creativity, dabbles into the failure topic by explaining that kids are unafraid of failure, and we tend to teach that fearlessness out of people (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html). If we are constantly afraid of failing, then we’re never going to try, which ultimately means that we’ll never do anything great.

So in summation: failure is not to be feared! Sure, your goal should not be to fail, but it’s inevitable in many ways, and when it happens, it should be embraced as an opportunity to learn more and be greater.

I realize some of these videos are long and that you are all very busy, but I think each of them are worth your time, so whenever you get a chance, give them a look!  :)