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.


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.

Leader Video

Church Planting Video

Epic Leader Fail!

Stop Doing the Work and Get the Work Done.

Many years ago, early in my leadership experience, I employed an admin named Janet*. Janet was a godly senior with the most remarkable spirit to help. She tried to do everything I asked, and her questions fell from her lips as water from Niagara falls. She was a saint. She just wasn’t very detail oriented, timely or efficient.

Whose fault was that? Mine.

It was a Wednesday, and being the terrific leader that I thought I was, I decided that rather than do the task myself, I would entrust it to Janet. At the same time, I knew that the task would take a couple of hours and that I would have to patiently wait for it. I also knew that the job would not be the quality that I expected or would have achieved myself. I waited…

By the next morning, Janet was still working on the project. Eight payable hours later and she was not yet finished. In my frustration, I took the project away from her and had it finished 25 minutes later to a much higher degree of quality. What a loser! Me, not her.

Here’s what I accomplished that day.

Project finished to a high degree of excellence (and in 1/18th of the time)!
One devastated admin that paid the price of a lower self-worth.
A missed opportunity to allow another to grow in skill and self-confidence.
One upset boss with a “See what I can do!” attitude that was displeasing to God. And…
A perpetual cycle of repeating that monthly task myself, 25 minutes of my time, every month, for eternity.
Epic. Leader. Fail… Lesson learned? Oh Yeah!

I would love to be able to take back those early years and decisions. However, in a way, I am grateful to look back upon them knowing that I have grown. One key element of a transformational leader is their ability to inspire and uplift, not tear down and destroy. The task-master can build an organization, but a leader can build community with a purpose.

About Inspiring Others…

You really do not need to look very hard to see the God-given gifts in other people. As their leader, a word from you—affirming their gift—will do more to motivate them to pursue it than perhaps any other worldly encouragement. Be observant, and when you see it, capitalize on it.

“Hey, Jonathan! I was watching you the other day, and I need to say… you have a unique ability for organization.”

Leave it at that. Let the compliment do the rest. Remember, it is about building up the individual, not manipulating them so that they will work for you. The first will bear fruit, the second is unethical.

If we are not first-and-foremost about building people, we will find ourselves far less the leaders than we otherwise would be.

Give them a model in your leadership that they can reproduce for others.

*name changed

I Hope You Fail!

I hope you fail.

Not because I dislike you. Not because I want to be seen as better than you. I simply want you to fail, and fail regularly. Believe it or not, failure is the number one indicator of success. Counterintuitive? You bet… but listen to this.

Successful people fail far more often than unsuccessful people

The reality of failure is inevitable. How you handle it will determine how successful you will be in life. If you allow failure to defeat you and undermine your sense of wellbeing you will probably never—truly—succeed. On the other hand, if you understand that failure is THE pathway to success you will use the rubble of each disaster to build a causeway to greatness.

The key is to train yourself to take Decisive, Specific and Immediate action upon failure. In other words; “Get up and try it again,” or “Try something different.” Those who slump back in disappointment or pity find those emotions to be enslaving.

So let me amend my first statement and say:

I want you to fail, but I want you to fail fast.

Last Note: Don’t keep going when you know failure is imminent. Don’t fall pray to the concerns of what others will say, think, do. Continuing on will result in a bigger mess to clean. Own it. Take pride in it. Start over, try it again, do something different… blow it up if you have to…

Fail until you succeed.

An Avoidable Tragedy

Fail Fast

I cannot remember the location, but I remember the story like it was yesterday. A man and his son facing that moment where the son’s right of passage meant an extreme hiking trip with his father. Big hopes and excitement confronted them both. At one point, during the hike, the son strayed from the path and began to stumble down an incline littered with shale. Trying to right himself, the boy began to run faster and faster downhill until he was out of control. His father, knowing that at the bottom of that shale was a drop-off of over one hundred feet, began to give instruction. The boy could not see it nor was he aware of the danger. The father began to scream at the top of his lungs, “Fall Down!” He even extended his arms and legs to instruct the boy in a futile attempt to force the child’s action. “Fall Down! Spread your legs out and fall! NOW! Do it!” Doubtless, all the boy was thinking about is how much pain it meant to fall, and he continued to try to gain his balance. To the father’s horror, the son plummeted to his death.

I remember telling my children that story to reinforce a truth that I wanted them to learn. That is, that they must trust my word and do as I say immediately. There will be times when I know better, even if it hurts.

What a fabulous lesson for us as leaders. Failure is never what we intend. However, if we are going to fail, we really need to fail fast. Prolonging your fall can lead to death. By failing fast, you may be battered and bruised when it is all said and done, but at least you are alive to rebuild.

Reality Check

These lessons go to hundreds of people each week. That means one thing. Some of you are failing! Are you that leader? If it is, you have choices. Call a colleague, a mentor, a coach, or another leader whom you trust. There are many of us who care. We want to help.

Final Note

Every organizational leader desires to lead transformational change. If that’s you, you will fail in some of your many endeavors. Fail fast. Seek the guidance, pick yourself up, and pour your energies into the idea that seems to be gaining ground. Remember to always measure and assess your failures. If you can, failing fast will make you stronger.

Lesson in Tragedy

(reposted from October 31, 2014)

Less than two hours ago SpaceShipTwo had a catastrophic failure resulting in the death of at least one of its two pilots. Though these pilots were groundbreaking individuals, and their sacrifice to push the envelope of exploration should not be minimized, their tragic loss is not the subject of this post. This day in the lives of their families—without debate—will not be forgotten.

I was there in Mojave California on June 21, 2004, when SpaceShipOne made its historic flight into space. My son Bryan and I sensed the gravity of that day as we watched Burt Rutan and his group of pioneers explore the future. I was… inspired.

The photo above is SpaceShipOne as Bryan and I saw her on June 21, 2004 in the Mojave Desert.
Today I am saddened. However, I am also excited for the future. Here is why… Mark my words… This tragedy will prove to the world that the entrepreneurial spirit in the exploration of new frontiers will always trump wasteful bureaucracy in the push of our society into the future.

We must take this moment to watch and learn. Learn how inspired private industry leaders differ from our super-agencies and let it inspire us to be leaders for tomorrow.

Allow me to preemptively compare this tragedy with either of the two Space Shuttle tragedies. Here are my predictions:

1. The investigation will be shorter, less costly and far more detailed and efficient.

2. The support of families, the flow of information and the care of loved ones will be far more personal and meaningful.

3. The return to flight will be quick with remarkable solutions to the discovered problems.

4. SpaceShipThree—when it flies—will be remarkably improved through the evaluation of this tragedy and the lessons learned.

5. The acceleration into a space tourism future will not be hindered because of the excellence in which this tragedy will be navigated.

At the end of the day, the world will see that the future belongs to entrepreneurs and not to the politicians, government agencies, and super-companies on contract. The future will prove to be in the small but creative, the uncompromising, the risk-takers, the dreamers. Oh yes, let us not forget that it will also be of, by, and for the people.

One last note: Let’s take this very moment to pray for the families of these brave leaders.

Silver Lining

Times are difficult. Churches are reducing staff and trying to figure out what to do to avoid collapse. Fear is building and pessimism is the flavor of the month. Still, when I look at the horizon I see great things. Then again, I have never been one to despair. Sure, I have had troubles. I have made bad decisions. Yet, the mistakes that have been most detrimental are not mistakes that I have overtly made. Without exception, all of my greatest mistakes occurred when I moved too slowly in a given situation. In other words, they were mistakes of inaction.

If one had the tools, one could capitalize on the times for future prosperity. If I had $200,000 burning a hole in my pocket, I tell you what I would do. I would put a down payment on ten new homes, buying them as rentals and sit on that investment until the market turned around, making the most of market opportunity. However, most of us do not have $200,000 burning a hole in our pockets. We do have skill sets however, and to sit idly by—in this market—and do nothing to invest in the church is a grave error. Why, because you have the tools and the market is right.

There is no question that the game has changed for your people. The attention that was so readily given to your church is now given to worries, opportunities for income, longer hours and just making ends meet. In a perfect world—you know as well as I—our people would not forget their first love for their troubles. The reality however, is that they do. I want to share with you three priorities for your church that I think need to be considered immediately so that you do not make the mistake of inaction; strategies for driving growth, priorities for managing talent, and ideas for improving relationships.

Our best churches will do far more than just survive this difficult time, they will flourish. Your people are hurting and questioning everything from their financial stability to their faith. The question is, will you respond in a way that increases their confidence, or drive them away by your inaction?

Strategies for driving growth:

Our best pastors will recognize the unique opportunity that the financial crisis affords. Many have served in fear of initiating change for worry of backlash. Now is the time! Our people—more than ever—may be ready for change. Our boards, committees, ministries, strategy groups, whatever one calls them these days, see the crisis and desire for something to be done about it. This is where you, pastor, can seek the face of God and find out how you can bring the change that He wants to your ministry. The fields are ripe for change. Be a catalyst. Spark new ideas as you convey what Father is placing in your heart. A bunker mentality may serve to get you through, but not to prosper. There are souls to be won and the need for effective change is an urgent one.

Priorities for managing talent:

Remember the days of soccer practice (fill in your sport). You would drop off your kids, catch up on some shopping or whatever small tasks you needed to do, and then pick the smelly kid up and take him home.

Two questions. Why didn’t you stay for the practice? And, what factor enabled you to leave? The first answer is “because you didn’t have to stay.” The second answer is “responsible adults were there to watch and train you kid.” Now, I want you to think of the one person who was not the coach, yet was always there. Who was she and why did she never miss a practice or a game? She was the Team Mom, and she was there because she was given the “responsibility” to be there. Bingo!

In this difficult time, you cannot afford to do it all yourself. Your people love you and will live to your expectations of them. “Ask and you shall receive.” There is great talent out there, ready to help your church prosper, but they are out “doing those little tasks.” I bet, if you empower them with kindness and reward their efforts with recognition, you will have a team mom that shows up to all practices, all games, and makes the team better by far. You can only truly manage a few tasks well. Empowering others and building leaders offers a replicable process that creates speed and flexibility in the church. If you do it well, you will get things done.

My final thoughts are ideas for improving relationships.

Define the crisis. Not the global crisis, not the church crisis, but the individual’s crisis. You are the pastor and your people need you. When was the last time you sat with your members, or (as stated above if you have a large church) empowered leaders to sit with your people, and respond to their crisis. Hear this! Your people will return to the fountain that provides water when they are thirsty. In the past, we would lose people to other churches. In a sense, while that was unfortunate, at least they were not leaving “church.” In these times we are losing people all-together. They are leaving the church because they are finding nothing there to help their crisis. I am not going to give you ideas on how to remedy that, that solution is as individual as your people, your geography and your church. But I will tell you one thing, if I was losing members because they are losing jobs, I would surely be irresponsible if I did not build relationships by having a job fair, or retraining ministry.

Yes it’s work. But hard work will prove for some to be the difference between a new future and closing the doors.