How to Fail Well

This is a guest post by Nathan Rouse. He is the lead pastor at Raleigh Christian Community. He and his wife, Erin, have two boys, Ethan and Landon. You can read his blog and follow him on Twitter.If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

Recently, I made an early morning phone call to one of my direct reports to own a blunder on my part. Not a great way to start the day. If you’ve ever blown it as a leader you know that these conversations are never fun. It’s humbling.

An Extreme Mountain Bike Crashing - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/MichaelSvoboda, Image #14826906

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/MichaelSvoboda

Great leaders hold those they lead accountable. But those we lead must see us as holding ourselves accountable as well. If we expect them to “own it” when they make mistakes, we need to first model this for them.

Here are five principles for owning your own mistakes and failures:

  1. Respond immediately. When you realize you’ve made a mistake, “own it” with those involved as soon as possible. Delaying only tempts you to put it off and rationalize why it’s not that big of a deal to share. If your teammates don’t see you owning your mistakes when they come to light, they will question your credibility—and rightly so.
  2. Be crystal clear. Be direct and clear about the mistakes you make. If avoiding accountability is bad, half-owning a mistake wrapped in excuses is pathetic. Don’t beat around the bush or sugar coat the issue. Clearly identify the mistake and its implications. This will help bring people up to speed on the issue and enlist their support in what should be done next.
  3. Share the lesson learned. Failure is a wasted experience if nothing is learned. Learning a personal lesson is good, but teaching others from your mistakes is even better. It will take some humility on your part, but great leaders know that it’s much more effective to lead out of vulnerability with all of our imperfections than seeking to manage a façade of leadership perfection.
  4. Be ready for feedback. Just because you’ve taken responsibility doesn’t mean that people will not want to further process what has transpired. Be prepared for people to share their feedback. Resist the urge to be defensive. A wonderful proverb states that “a soft answer turns away wrath.” It is difficult for people to pour out their wrath on someone that takes feedback with humility. Remember: if you’re committed to “owning it,” this is part of the process.
  5. Move forward. If you lead, you’re going to fail, period. It’s part of the job description. Pick yourself up and move on. Earlier in my leadership I would be paralyzed by my mistakes. It would take me forty-eight hours or so to find my leadership equilibrium. High capacity leaders don’t have that kind of time to be wasting by kicking themselves. Keep in mind you’re modeling that you can fail, learn, and move forward.

The sad reality is that many leaders run from owning their mistakes because they don’t want to look weak. The irony is that this very avoidance of accountability screams weakness. Strength in leadership comes from integrated character at every level. Make owning mistakes part of your leadership toolbox and you and your team will be the better for it.

What “owning it” principles have you found to be helpful? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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