Susan Foster

Authentic Leadership: Failure is Not An Option–It’s a Requirement

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6099162[1]Our culture is pretty hard on personal failures.  Or at least what we believe are personal failures.  We can beat ourselves up in our minds for hours on end–but don’t admit you have failed to anyone else, especially your boss or the people who work for you.

Thinking that leaders don’t fail is a myth.

I have known a lot of great leaders. I have known a lot of weak leaders.

I’ve been both, at times.

None of the great leaders I’ve known were without failures in their lives and in their careers.

A great part of our human experience is being able to learn from our mistakes, or what we think are mistakes at the time (because it didn’t quite turn out like we intended).

In fact, that’s the whole point–the “growing” part.

When we are born we are fully perfect human beings—for newborns. We are born with an innate thirst to learn—how to walk, how to talk, how to be on our own. And if we are fortunate, at every age, and every day we learn something new.

The first time we started to walk, and we fell down, our parents didn’t say, “Oh well, you just can’t do that. You failed that test. Now sit on your behind and give up.” No, they either encouraged us, or we saw something we wanted, or somewhere we wanted to go, and we kept trying, and falling down, and getting up and trying again.

As adults, we see something we want, or somewhere we want to go in life, and we go for it.

Sometimes we fail.  We misjudge people, we misjudge situations, and we make the wrong choices.  If we are lucky, we “get” it the first time (so many times I didn’t!), and make other choices, and hopefully not the same ones.

Like walking, failure happens over and over again until we either get it right—or we realize we are paddling against the stream and we turn around and go toward another destination.

When I wrote my resume, and I’ve done it hundreds of times, I learned to highlight my accomplishments. I didn’t talk about my failures—but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a lot of them.

For example, I thought it was a failure when I went to one particular job, and absolutely hated it. Strangely, I was making more money than I had every made in my life, and I had to make myself get up and go to that job every day. Only the fear of letting my child starve and losing my home kept me going.

I want you to think for a moment. Think of a couple of things you have right now that you cherish—a person, a relationship, your home, some thing. For right this moment, we will call that Your Best Thing in the World (BTIW).

Now think of a positive turn of events in your life that enabled you to have this favorite thing. For example if your BTIW is your significant other, recall how you happened to meet him or her,  Maybe you worked together, or went to school together, or maybe you hit them at a traffic light.

Think about that Happy Event that Contributed to Your BTIW.

Got that?

Now go back a step further in your life history. Think about the event you just described and what happened to make that possible.

Let’s say Your BTIW is your dog. You got that dog because he wandered onto your porch one night. But you were only in that particular house because you had moved from your apartment where no pets were allowed. Now that you moved, you took him in.

What we are doing here is reversing the storytelling order of our lives, so that it runs from now backwards instead of the other way around.

Follow that chain in your life from Your BTIW until you can think of one piece of bad luck, or a bad choice that helped it come about.

For example, remember that awful job I told you about a few minutes ago? The one where I would almost have rather not gotten up in the morning and felt like I was walking through sludge every day?

When I tell that story backwards, I realize that if I had not been at that job, I would not have worked with the person who had a going-away party where I met my husband.

If I had not gone to that awful job, chances are I would never have met my wonderful husband and I wouldn’t be with him today.

When I did this exercise on myself, I realized that we can create an interpretation of our failures and bad choices that is a story with a happy ending, or a story with a bad ending.

One is no more arbitrary than the other. One is just as true as the other.

And if you still don’t believe me that it’s not only OK to fail—but it’s the path to learning—then find me one successful person living today who you would like to be most like who hasn’t failed, and learned.


How can you “retell” your story so that you find your happy endings?  How can I help you?

1 Comment… add one

Maryna Smuts September 25, 2014, 6:17 pm

Thanks for this reminder to celebrate “failure”, Susan. I find it so much easier to be hard on myself when things appear to go wrong and it’s good to notice that mistakes are one step closer to solutions. When viewed from that perspective, the pain of failure and hardship isn’t quite so sharp and it’s possible to breathe into it and feel that it’s all moving in the right direction.

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