The Importance of Failure in Leadership

by Wayne Sharer

International speaker, author, and entrepreneur. Retired navy officer, former commanding officer. Over 35 years of leading, coaching, mentoring, and speaking.

July 19, 2018

I know you’ve heard all about embracing failure and using it to move forward to achieve your goals. Accepting and expecting failure is very important.

But let’s face a fact. Even leaders hate failure when it happens. The difference between them is they typically only hate it for a very short time. Then they quickly move to embrace the failure, so they can learn from it.

In the military, this can be much more difficult than in most companies outside of the military. The reason is a failure in the military often involves loss of life. Accepting failure for military leaders seems to be accepting the loss of life.

The two together can make you as the leader feel like you are personally the failure. For those where their leadership rarely, if ever, involves life or death decisions, they can still get stuck on the idea that a failure makes them personally a failure as well.

For military leaders, they quickly realize the loss of life was a result of the failure, and then they swiftly move to find what really failed. Once uncovered, they embrace the failure, so the point of failure can be fixed, changed, or eliminated.

The military leader always cares that lives were lost but does not focus on this. To turn failure into success, the leader must focus on the failure to lead him to the winning solution.

The leaders in private companies do the same. The big difference is they rarely must deal with compartmentalizing loss of life from identifying failure. This doesn’t mean private companies never have life or death decisions. Indeed, many do but most have them far less than military combat leaders.

So, what does failure cause? Well, it causes fear. Fear is something else the leader must embrace as good.

There is good fear. There is also bad fear.

Bad fear causes you to slow or stop moving ahead. It makes you question more things that might be needed. Bad fear can cause you to stop dead in your tracks and make success nearly impossible.

Good fear is fear you recognize as something scary, but it pushes you to take the next step. To find out where you failed and how you failed. Then to try again and move ahead to success. Good fear drives the win.

Both good fear and bad fear lead you to want to avoid failure. The difference is in what you do next. Either embrace the failure, learn and win. Or run from the failure, and let it become your personal failure and lose.

Good leaders become better from failures because they learn and grow. Bad leaders give excuse and retreat.

In life, we don’t get to choose whether we fail or not (make a mistake or not). Failure at many points in your life is inevitable.

What you do get to choose is how you handle it. Will you handle it like a true leader or not?


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