One of the ways that we learn leadership is by watching others lead. In class, we often look at leadership examples from business, politics, education, and the like to see how they handled difficult situations or unique opportunities. For instance, this semester, my students are reviewing the cases from Michael Useem’s The Leadership Moment as part of our experience together.
There is an always a bit of danger in looking to any human example, because they are…well…
And as members of the human race, we fail. And my students are highly aware of the failures of leaders. Martha Stewart, Lance Armstrong, and Ken Lay are all household names, not because of their leadership successes, but because of their failures.
As Christians, we recognize that some failures in leadership are due to willful sinfulness. This week in class, we’ve been grappling with the difficulties of leading morally and ethically in today’s world. When leaders are faced with divided loyalties, competing values, and multiple stakeholders, leading an organization with ethics and integrity is a complex and challenging prospect.
Of course, some of our failures as leaders aren’t willful, they are quite simply mistakes. As humans we have a limited point of view, limited resources, and limited information. With all those limitations, we are bound to fail from time to time.
And maybe failure’s not all bad. In fact, some have attributed success to the willingness to risk and to fail, especially if we learn from failure.
I think there’s some truth in that idea. When we are never allowed to fail or never risk enough to fail, it’s difficult to ever learn something new. And while as leaders we have to weigh our responsibilities to the various stakeholders involved (ah, those challenges of ethical leadership again), perhaps it is sometimes irresponsible to always avoid risk that might involve failure.
At the very least, we as leaders ought to put into place some sort of practice that allows us to learn from those inevitable failures.
I’ve made it our practice on campus to ask every guest speaker at our leadership events to identify what practices they’ve put in place to help them turn those epic failures into learning opportunities rather than roadblocks. These are some of the things they’ve said:
- I ask “What do I learn from this?” or “God, who do you want me to become from this?”
- I keep a journal that helps me keep track of the lessons learned along the way.
- I make reflective, prayerful evaluation a part of our ongoing process – when we have apparent success and apparent failures.
I’d love to add to our list of best practices in learning from failure. Do you have practices in place that help you turn failures into learning opportunities?