Leaders Fail

Kathryn Scanland Leadership


Dr. Kathryn Scanland is the president of Greystone Global LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, leadership development and organizational design. This post is republished with permission from Tuesday Mornings.
If failure isn’t an option, than neither is success.  ~Seth Godin 

I mentioned in a previous blog that I attended the Global Leadership Summit in August.  Seth Godin was another speaker at this event.  As I’ve talked with other attendees, one of the themes (which I believe was unintentional) that seemed to appear in a number of the speakers’ presentations was the idea of failure.
When you’re going to a “leadership summit” you may not expect, or want, to hear a lot of talk about failure.  You’re a leader after all; shouldn’t the focus be more about success?  But I think Seth was right on point when he said that if failure isn’t an option, than neither is success. Maybe stated differently, the road to success passes through failure.
A number of years ago I spent a good deal of time making a presentation on a book that I co-authored that focused on workforce, employment and education issues. In that presentation I talked about failure as a key to learning and how our Western approach to education does not encourage or embrace the idea of failure. I used Thomas Edison as my example. Mr. Edison made more than 1,000 attempts before he successfully invented the incandescent light bulb. In other words, he failed far more than he succeeded and it’s because of those failures that he was able to give us light that would change how we live.
What intrigued me about the Thomas Edison example is how the audience would react.They would listen to my presentation – I was fairly good at holding their attention – but when I got to the point about failure, I could see the audience literally lean in to what I was saying. This caught me off guard. Really? Of all the points I was trying to make about employment, jobs, education, being globally competitive, what seemed to really draw them in was failure.
Our American culture shuns failure, we lie to hide it, we are embarrassed by it, and we go to extreme measures to cover it up. When we fail, we immediately jump into the next relationship, the next project, the next acquisition, the next deal, the next hire, etc. to avoid doing the hard work of learning from what went wrong. In the end, we pay a very high price for our pride by repeating the same failures, again and again.
Imagine a leader who truly embraced failure. Someone who was transparent when things didn’t work out as planned or hoped. A leader who took the time not to just say it was a “learning experience” but was disciplined to do the work of learning; a leader who took the time to examine how they, personally, contributed to what didn’t succeed; someone whoowned the failure.
The road to success passes through failure; effective leaders are those who accept that fact, embrace it, and lean into it.
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