Henry Ford once said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again; this time more intelligently.”1 Although this sentiment is optimistic in its presentation, no one likes to fail. Failure hurts and causes people to question their self-worth, even though setbacks are a necessary part of the human experience. Failure is uncomfortable, but it is in the discomfort that we grow, and good leaders are keenly attuned to this fact.
A misguided mindset of leadership is that leaders are leaders because they have all the answers and don’t make mistakes. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Leaders don’t have all the answers and they know they are going to make mistakes. What the most effective leaders come to understand is that failure builds character and resilience. They know that failure is important in leadership because it gives them the opportunity to learn what didn’t work, to discover what does.
In This Article:
- What Makes a Good Leader?
- Reasons Why Leaders Fail
- Why Failure Is Important in Leadership: Becoming a Better Leader
- How Does Failure Lead to Success?
- Learning To Accept Failure
What Makes a Good Leader?
The recipe for a good leader is easy to describe but challenging to put into practice.
First, the follower must believe that the leader has their best interests in mind. Once that is established, the follower begins to trust the leader. From there, the follower willingly commits to the leader, which makes leadership relational and not contingent upon a position of authority.
Along the way, the leader will inevitably make mistakes. That is a given. The question becomes: How does the leader learn from failure to enhance the relationship with their followers and achieve organizational success? The answer lies in the leader’s ability to demonstrate humility, vulnerability and courage in the face of failure.
Humility allows the leader to consider other people’s thoughts, ideas and perspectives as they navigate the failure. It leads to improved listening, greater compassion and the opportunity for increased collaboration. In so doing, the leader demonstrates vulnerability by being more relatable to followers.
By being vulnerable, the leader creates a space where followers see that the leader is willing to admit failure while pressing forward to overcome adversity, which, over time, builds trusting relationships.
Consequently, the leader demonstrates courage by embracing uncertainty and not allowing themselves to be stifled by fear of failure. They see failure as an opportunity for growth and they use it as fuel to make future situations better.
Reasons Why Leaders Fail
Leaders who fail to demonstrate humility, vulnerability and courage are leaders who fail consistently. These are individuals who:
- Lack a high degree of self-awareness and are seduced by the power of their position. As a result, they fail to employ the tenets of the leadership recipe and create a culture where potential followers do just enough to keep the leader off their back.
- They forget that they are in their position to serve others and that their success is dictated by their ability to get results with, and through, those in their charge.
- They make decisions in isolation and fail to communicate openly and transparently, which prevents them from building high-performing teams.
- They fail to learn from their failures and move forward arrogantly.
Why Failure Is Important in Leadership: Becoming a Better Leader
The reason why failure is important in leadership is because it allows the leader to define themselves by new learning, rather than by the failure. Instead of blaming others, the leader uses the failure as an opportunity to grow while communicating hope amid challenges. These leaders accept that failure is part of the leadership process, because it creates the opportunity for them to reevaluate priorities and objectives to ensure the organization is on the right path. In the process, the leader become more resilient by navigating the messiness of the failure to identify new and different opportunities to achieve success that otherwise might have been in their “blind spot” prior to the failure.
Important Lessons To Learn from Failure
There are numerous lessons leaders learn from failure. At or near the top of the list is that failure shapes the leader by enhancing their level of self-awareness and emboldens their character by illustrating the ongoing need for reinvention. This could take the form of being more collaborative, finding more effective ways to communicate, building trust and gaining buy-in, emphasizing the need to build high-performing teams and being more inclusive of divergent ideas. Thus, failure gives the leader the opportunity to expand their field of vision and identify different approaches they can use to build trust among their followers and achieve greater success.
How Does Failure Lead to Success?
Failure is the key to success. Failure not only assists leaders in developing character and resilience but also enables them to enhance their flexibility and adaptability. This is primarily because the mindset that contributed to the failure is unlikely to yield success in the future, necessitating a shift in thinking and approach. So, how does failure lead to success? By being more flexible and adaptable in their thinking, the leader opens the door to creative and innovative thought by demonstrating intellectual humility.
Thus, failure leads to success principally because the leader improves their flexibility and adaptability in the pursuit of new knowledge. Put simply, such leaders show a greater willingness and desire to learn from their failures, which precedes future success.
Learning To Accept Failure
At its core, failure — like success — is feedback. It is the result of not achieving a goal or missing the target. It stings, and it can be challenging to accept that failure is part of the leadership process.
- Learning to accept failure productively requires the leader to give him/herself permission to feel uncomfortable emotions, such as guilt, shame or embarrassment.
- As part of this permission, the leader must practice self-compassion, which is to assert that they show themselves the same level of compassion they would show others.
- Further, the leader must take time to reflect deeply on the causes of the failure, both internally and externally, and fight the urge to blame others or become a victim.
- Finally, the leader should adopt a growth mindset, actively seeking new opportunities that will shift the outcome in the favor of their organization.
Why failure is important in leadership is because the learning that comes out of failure can be transformative, not just to the leader, but also to each follower and to the organization. Although there is no prescribed method to learn from failure, there are programs that give leaders a stronger foundation to better prepare them for when failure arrives. Grand Canyon University’s Master of Science in Leadership provides current and future leaders with the comprehensive education necessary to effectively deal with failure to achieve unparalleled success.
1Andersen, E. (2013, May 31). 21 Quotes From Henry Ford On Business, Leadership And Life. Forbes. Retrieved on June 16, 2023.
Approved by faculty for the Colangelo College of Business on June 16, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.