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Finding Surprising Success by Supporting Interesting Failure

Organizations desire certainty, success, and efficiency, and it is uncertainty, failure, and inefficiency that are sources of innovation. Leaders fail as much as they succeed. However, the pervasive positive gaslighting that dominates social media feeds and company communications hides this reality. An inaccurate widely held assumption is that successful leaders succeed in spite of their failures. But failure, although uncomfortable, is not always bad, and an unhealthy fear of failure puts results at risk. Leaders and organizations that are not improving are falling behind. Many organizational cultures are designed to keep employees from taking risks. But it is embracing failure that creates space for innovation. Here are three practical ways leaders can support interesting failure and realize surprising success.

Why would you want to do something that could lead to failure for you or your business?

The word "failure" has different meanings to different people at different times. What constitutes a failure is not always clear and is usually personal. For example, walking across the finish line of a marathon can be viewed as success and failure, depending on your perspective. A leader's perception and response to failure determine and shape success for followers in any given situation.

Typically, failure is considered a lack of success in some effort or a situation in which something does not work as expected. Using this definition, it is counterintuitive to think that a business leader should support failure. However, the inability to change leads to business failure, and an unhealthy fear of failure threatens success. According to the bureau of labor statistics, approximately 75% of all ventures fail in ten years.

Avoiding failure in the workplace reinforces continuous improvements over innovation. While this approach results in high-quality and low-cost products and services, the hidden financial and non-financial costs of avoiding failure are severe. Beyond the obvious competitive threats from a lack of innovation, a failure to learn and grow leads to repeat errors and avoidable mistakes. Failure creates the space to reconsider the task and envision a more successful outcome.

Healthy vs. unhealthy fear of failure

Fear of failure is characterized by feelings of embarrassment, a perceived threat to a leader's value, future uncertainty, or others' perceptions of the leader. The fear of failure causes anxiety, avoidance, loss of control, helplessness, and powerlessness at a personal level.

Leaders with a dominant fear of failure avoid opportunities to develop and grow. At an organizational level, the complications that arise from that culture are increased repeatable errors and a lack of necessary experimentation and risk-taking for innovation. Businesses that do not innovate and change fall behind and ultimately fail.

Fear of failing can be a rational and irrational response to a real or perceived consequence of a leader's actions. Without a rational fear of failing, leaders lack the desire to evaluate the potential pros and cons associated with a new idea.

A healthy fear of failure improves a leader's success. An irrational and persistent fear of failing is referred to as atychiphobia. It can range from mild to all-consuming daily life. Individuals that also struggle with perfectionism can struggle with this persistent fear of failure.

Three practical ways leaders can support interesting failure

Supporting failure does not imply that leaders ignore the fear of failure. Instead, leaders need to recognize the negative influence of fear and turn it into an advantage.

Leadership Support 1: Clarify excusable vs. inexcusable failure

It is relatively easy to differentiate between achieving or missing a goal. However, embracing failure requires keen awareness and the ability to distinguish between excusable mistakes and those resulting from carelessness. Reinforcing differentiation encourages risk-taking to achieve stretch goals.

Leaders reward risk avoidance when well-thought-out and executed plans that fail are punished. Positive risk-taking behaviors need to be recognized and rewarded even when not directly resulting in achieving the desired goal. Training is an effective tool leaders can use to set expectations and reinforce desired behaviors by removing the negative consequences associated with taking risks.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. - Winston Churchill

Leadership Support 2: Be vulnerable

When leaders practice vulnerability, it creates safety where followers are more willing to be open to failures. Leaders that support failure are transparent about their failures and don't blame others when they occur. Although leaders are expected to convey an image of competence, confidence, and power, followers already know you are not perfect.

In addition to being transparent, vulnerable leaders are good active listeners. Actively listening is your ability to hear and improve mutual understanding. Hearing is not a synonym for active listening.

When you actively listen, you pay attention, show interest, suspend judgment, reflect, clarify, summarize, and share to gain clarity and understanding. When practicing active listening, you are available to the other person.

“The great leaders are not the strongest, they are the ones who are honest about their weaknesses." - Simon Sinek

Leadership Support 3: Create a culture of collaboration

Leaders that are supportive of failure create a collaborative culture where risks can be analyzed, and good ideas utilized no matter where the idea originates. Collaboration builds confidence and courage to express thoughts and take risks. Leaders who embrace failure encourage a growth mindset and empower risk-taking behaviors to achieve personal and professional success and significance.

Establish team operating agreements that encourage collaboration, such as:

  • Commitment to putting the company first

  • Value one another's contributions

  • Practice patience

  • Strive for consensus and a willingness to use disagreement as a tool for stronger decisions

  • Seek first to understand

  • Silence is not golden - everyone can speak up and constructively challenge one another and the status quo

“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together”. African Proverb

How Nelson Mandela responded to failure

Most consider Nelson Mandela, a successful leader. He spent much of his life ending a system of legislation upholding segregationist policies against non-white citizens of South Africa, becoming the first democratically elected president of South Africa, and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and many more honors. Mandela is also known for being sentenced to life in jail for conspiring to overthrow the government.

Amidst what most would consider a devastating defeat, he spent his time in prison focusing on things within his control. He studied and served as a leader for improving prison conditions. During this time, he also inspired others by reciting the following line from William Ernest Hensley's poem Invictus, "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul."

To find surprising success, like Mandela, leaders must overcome an unhealthy fear of failure and focus on what they control to support interesting failure.

What is your real challenge in supporting failure?


Berkun, S. (2010). The myths of innovation. O'Reilly Media, Inc.

Farson, R., & Keyes, R. (2002). The failure-tolerant leader. Harvard Business Review, 80(8), 64-148.

Kollmann, T., Stöckmann, C., & Kensbock, J. (2017). Fear of failure as a mediator of the relationship between obstacles and nascent entrepreneurial activity—An experimental approach. Journal of Business Venturing, 32(3), 280-301.

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2007). The leadership challenge. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Luhn, A. (2016). The learning organization. Creative and Knowledge Society, 6(1), 1-13.

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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