The better a man is, the more mistakes he will make, for the more new things he will try. I would never promote into a top level job a man who was not making mistakes…otherwise he is sure to be mediocre.
We never see God in failure, but only in success – a strange attitude for people who have the cross as the center of their faith.
Whether the context is leadership in particular or life in general; we all experience failure. As a result, genuine success is not based on avoiding failure but on facing our failures correctly. William A. Ward observed, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end street.” Now that’s simple to say but a much more difficult concept to embrace. How do we survive the stumbles and defeats in our life? The following principles may help you maintain the right attitude in the wake of disappointments:
1. Treat failure as a friend, not a foe
Many people (especially leaders) are deathly afraid to fail. They see mistakes as their worst enemy. When treated properly, however, failure can lead to great success and be a great learning experience. Henry Ford aptly observed, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Don’t try to hide your mistakes, simply admit them, learn from them and grow from them. Remember that it’s ok to fail.
2. Respond with Openness
Leaders who live in openness survive mistakes the best. Crises such as Watergate, Enron or the PTL scandal make it clear that most of us are more tolerant of mistakes admitted than mistakes denied. King David initially tried to hide his affair and subsequent cover up. But once discovered David openly declared his guilt. Psalm 51 is public acknowledgment of his moral failure.
3. Spirit of Forgiveness
If you have cultivated a spirit of forgiveness and grace, you will more likely be shown forgiveness and grace when you err. A follower you treat with compassion is far more prone to forgive you when you’re caught in a blunder. Take time to develop mercy.
4. Communicate Authenticity
As a leader, you MUST communicate you’re a real person and that means you’re a person in process. People in process are much easier to forgive when caught in a failure than those who try to project perfection. Gandhi was once confronted by one of his disciples; “Gandhiji, I don’t understand you. How can you say one thing last week and something quite different this week?” Gandhi replied, “Ah, because I have learned something since last week.” People accept weakness more easily than they do hypocrisy. Which is more powerful: your need to preserve your image or your desire to communicate authenticity?
Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams holds the major league baseball record for the highest batting average over a complete season. Yet despite his record .406 average, he failed that year to get a hit in 6 out of 10 attempts! No one bats 1.000 nor competes without an error. Give yourself permission to fail, then fail gracefully and deal with it appropriately, not with denial or blame.
Dani Tyler, third baseman for the 1996 US women’s Olympic softball team, hit a home run. Or so she thought. In her excitement to round the bases, she accidentally stepped over home plate. The umpire disallowed the run. Because of that one misstep, the US team lost in extra innings 2-1, only their second international loss in 10 years. The next evening, Tyler played well. Sports Illustrated writer Peter King asked her why the mistake hadn’t seemed to become a mental ball and chain. “Well, I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning,” she admitted. “But this is sports. One play doesn’t make a game, and one play won’t define my life. I’ve never been the best athlete, but I try to have the best attitude and work the hardest….”
The next time you fail (and you will!) remember Dani Tyler. But also remember the grace and forgiveness that is available to us through His mercy. That is what Samson experienced when “…the hair of his head began to grow again….” (Judges 16.22). Learn from your mistakes, most importantly that failure is not final!
Stay the Course,
Dr. Greg Morris
(This is the second of a two part article on failure. The first part can be found at http://leadershipdynamics.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/failure-is-not-final-part-1/)
Gregory K. Morris, Ph.D. is the founder and president of Leadership Dynamics, a non-profit corporation committed to the training and development of Christian leaders and their organizations. He has authored In Pursuit of Leadership. For more information, visit LeadershipDynamics.org.