Learning from Failure

If you are a leader, failure is in your future. Don’t worry about it, embrace it. Trust me, you will look back at your failures and remember fondly how you navigated your way out of them, what you learned from them, and how you grew because of them. Failure has a funny way of shaping you into a remarkable leader.

Whether apocryphal or not I want to share a story with you. It is a difficult story, but it’s one you need to hear. It is the story of a father and son who—for the son’s 16th birthday—decided to experience a right-of-passage type adventure to mark the boys transition to manhood. This special time took them on a difficult hike in the high eastern Sierra’s of California. 

At one point on the hike, the son slipped from the narrow pass onto a large, steep slope of shale. As the son was trying to regain his balance he began to run faster and faster trying not to fall. To his horror, his father could see that at the end of the shale slop was a cliff and the father began to yell at the top of his voice “FALL DOWN!” In his desperation, he was waving his hands in the air, “SPREAD YOU ARMS, SPREAD YOUR LEGS, FALL FALL!!!” 

In his fear of falling, and being incapable of seeing the cliff, as his father looked helplessly the son plummeted to his death.

Tragic.

As a leader, there will be times when you need to spread your arms and legs and hit the ground in failure. In those moments, DO IT QUICKLY. You may actually survive the fall. In other words, you are going to fail. Every good leader does. So, when you do fail, FAIL FAST.

Once you hit the shale, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, review, reflect, and learn from your fall. Then head back on the trail applying what you’ve learned. In the end, you’ll look back at what you survived and you will smile. With some reflection and some time you will be happy that you fell, and best of all, you will be a better leader for it.

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Empowered

As a leader, I need to encourage you to move as far away from being a command and control leader as possible, and become a leader who understands the importance of empowerment. Empower and Release leaders are at the forefront of organizational discovery and there is a reason for it. Empowerment enables trust, freedom, autonomy and a feeling of worth in your direct reports. It also maximizes your time as a leader and allows you to move the organization forward.

One thing I am faithful to do with my leadership team is to have “the talk” and it always sounds something like this.

You are a ten at what you do and it is my job to empower you to do it. You will be your best when you are working in your passion and your strengths. Where you are a ten, I may only be a six… and if I tell you how to do your job, your ten will sink to an eight because of my six. 

However, if you will let me empower you to be the best leader you can be… If you will allow me to release you to your own creativity, you may even work as an eleven. 

Understand this next point. If I release you, you’re going to make mistakes, and that’s OK. I want you to know that I may pull you into my office and we may even have some words,… but out there with our people… I will support your decisions. You can trust that I will support you as a leader.

Now here’s the thing… I demand the same from you. If you feel I have made a mistake in leading you or this organization, I have an open door, let’s talk about it in my office. When we leave my office, we will be united in front of our people and I will be grateful that you had the courage to come to me rather than go to the others. Now get out there and change the world.

Every time I have that talk, I can see a feeling of relief wash over the face of that leader. You see, the leader that can instill trust and empower his or her people early in their relationship, and not destroy that trust by actions, will buy the loyalty, trust and respect of their people. In those very special cases, everybody wins.

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Bad News

Now, here is a conflicting thought… Have you considered that—for the leader—Bad News is actually Good News.

Think about it. If you are leading well, your staff has the confidence that they can bring the bad news to you as regularly as they bring the good. If however, you’re a leader that is finding out things have gone wrong… and it is too late to fix them, the breakdown is not with your people, the deficiency is with you.

Trust is the single most valuable possession that a leader has. The ability for your people to communicate problems, or forecast potential problems, is created when they trust your integrity as a leader. If they feel they can bring things to you and tap your wisdom for their solutions you will win the hearts and trust of your people. Furthermore, you will avert disaster, and increase motivation within your organization. You will also solidify your legacy as a quality leader.

If on the other hand, your people fear bringing issues to you because your normal reaction is accusatory, questioning, condemning, frustrated or angry, you have created an environment that will destroy trust and ultimately harm your organization. 

Take a minute. What do your people proactively bring to you? Is the report always a good one? Do they eagerly report the negative things? Do you only “find out” about the bad after it has occurred? As you try to discover why that is… perhaps you simply need to look in the mirror.

Allow me encourage you to talk to your people. Build their trust. Let them know that you are open and that you will reward the discovery of problems and their ideas for solutions. Show them in your reaction that you will honor those words. It takes a hundred repeated mature responses to gain an individuals trust, but it only takes one immature response to destroy it.

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