“Failure is good. It’s fertilizer. Everything I’ve learned about coaching, I’ve learned from making mistakes.” Rick Pitino
“One reason God created time was so there would be a place to bury the failures of the past.” James Long
More often than any of us would like to admit, there are three small words that express the truth of our lives: “I blew it!” In lighter moments, removed from the reality of the failure, we may simply rename our mistakes “Experience.” But the cold hard facts of life cannot be erased — we are all imperfect, faulty, mistake-prone people.
As much as we’d like to deny it, our leadership lives are also marked by failures. Failure is a fact of leadership. We all have and will continue to make mistakes in judgment, errors in decision making and failures in leading and directing those around us.
Often our mistakes are minimal with minor ramifications. Other times they are costly, humiliating and demoralizing–bringing serious consequences. A leader should strive not to
fail, but he can fail and still be a good leader. Success isn’t based on “avoiding” failure, but on facing it correctly.
There are two basic steps in dealing with failure. The first step in dealing with our failure is to understand why the mistakes occurred. Mistakes usually fall into the following categories:
1. Panic-Promoted Mistakes
Some mistakes are the result of reacting to the tyranny of the urgent. In a moment of fear or panic, we make a decision that we might not normally make if we would have had the time to think through our options. Look at the reaction of 10 of the 12 spies in Numbers 13-14 to
2. Well-Intentioned Mistakes
As leaders, most of the time our intentions our honorable; however, that does not mean they are always right and error free. That’s what happened to Moses in Exodus 2.11-12.
3. Passive-Negligence Mistakes
Often we are not as actively involved in the leadership process as we should be, resulting in mistakes caused by neglect. Eli, David and Samuel were each guilty of this in their roles as fathers.
4. Unrestrained-Curiosity Mistakes
We know what happened to the cat because of its curiosity, but do we recognize we can also fall victim to the same temptation? That describes Saul’s conduct in 1 Samuel 28.
5. Blind-Spot Mistakes
Most times we are simply not aware of our own weaknesses which cause us to see things through spiritual and leadership cataracts. In Exodus 18 Jethro was able to see things that were totally oblivious to Moses.
Many leaders see failure as their worst enemy. But the greatest problem is not that we make mistakes; it’s that we often fail to learn from them! Successful people recognize that failures, when treated properly, can lead to great success.
Samson: Exemplary In Failure
Samson is known not only for his strength but also for his moral failure. We are well aware of how he toyed and eventually capitulated to moral temptation. But one of the most encouraging verses in the Bible is found in the narrative of his life. Judges 16.22 records that “…the hair of his head began to grow again….”
There were definite ramifications to Samson’s failure. He would never again occupy a position of national leadership. But through forgiveness and restoration, that was not the end of his impact. Although he would never again see through physical eyes, his spiritual eyes
had never seen things clearer!
- Failure: Our Common Experience
Failures will occur in your leadership life. But successful leaders don’t avoid failure; they handle it successfully. Learn from your mistakes and realize that failure is not final! Peter Drucker said,
“The better a man is, the more mistakes he will make, for the more new things he will try. I would never promote into a top level job a man who was not making mistakes…otherwise he is sure to be mediocre.”
- Whether in leadership or in life, we all experience failure. True success, though, isn’t based on avoiding failure but on facing failure correctly. William A. Ward said,
- “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end street.”
- Surviving Failure
- Now that’s easy to say but much more difficult to embrace. How do we survive the stumbles and defeats in our life? The following observations may help you maintain the right attitude in the wake of disappointments:
- Treat Failure As A Friend, Not A Foe.Many people are deathly afraid to fail. They see mistakes as their worst enemy. When treated properly, however, failure can lead to great success and be a great learning experience. Henry Ford observed, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Don’t try to hide your mistakes, simply admit them, learn from them and grow from them. Remember that it’s OK to fail!
- Respond With Openness.Leaders who live in openness survive mistakes the best. Crises such as Watergate or the PTL scandal make it clear that most of us are more tolerant of mistakes admitted than mistakes denied. King David initially tried to cover up his affair and subsequent crimes. But once discovered David openly declared his guilt. Psalm 51 is public acknowledgment of his moral failure.
- Cultivate A Spirit Of Forgiveness.If you have cultivated a spirit of forgiveness and grace, you will more likely be shown forgiveness and grace when you err. A follower you treat with compassion is far more prone to forgive you when you’re caught in a blunder. Take time to develop mercy.
- Communicate Authenticity.As a leader you MUST communicate you’re a real person and that means you’re a person in process. People in process are much easier to forgive when caught in a failure than those who try to project perfection.
Gandhi was once confronted by one of his disciples; “Gandhiji, I don’t understand you. How can you say one thing last week and something quite different this week?” Gandhi replied, “Ah, because I have learned something since last week.”
People accept weakness more easily than they do hypocrisy. Which is more powerful: your need to preserve your image or your desire to communicate authenticity?
Ted Williams holds the major league baseball record for the highest batting average over a complete season. Yet despite his record .406 average, he failed that year to get a hit in 6 out of 10 attempts. No one bats 1.000 nor competes without an error. Give yourself permission to fail, then fail gracefully and deal with it appropriately, not with denial or blame.
Dani Tyler, third baseman for the US women’s 1996 Olympic softball team, hit a home run. Or so she thought. In her excitement to round the bases, she accidentally stepped over home plate. The umpire disallowed the run. Because of that one misstep, the US team lost in extra innings 2-1, only their second international loss in 10 years.
The next evening, Tyler played well. Sports Illustrated writer Peter King asked her why the mistake hadn’t seemed to become a mental ball and chain.
“Well, I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning,” she admitted. “But this is sports. One play doesn’t make a game, and one play won’t define my life. I’ve never been the best athlete, but I try to have the best attitude and work the hardest….”
The next time you fail (and you will!) remember Dani Tyler. But also remember the grace and forgiveness that is available to us through His mercy. That is what Samson experienced when “…the hair of his head began to grow again….” (Judges 16.22).
Learn from your mistakes, most importantly that failure is not final!
Stay the Course,