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What’s Failure Got to Do with It

February 12, 2020

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Lynne Gilliland

Lynne Gilliland Consulting

Lynne Gilliland is an executive coach and podcast host of Lessons from Leaders 

Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things – Tim Ferriss, podcaster, author.

I am intrigued by failure and courage. In my podcast, I always make sure I ask my guests what their experience with failure and courage is. And I listen to their answer very carefully, always trying to glean one more jewel of insight. Like all of you, I have had my share of epic failures, and I have tried to live a life of courage. The last 30 years of working with leaders in the NGO community has been a lesson in witnessing amazingly gifted, and open-hearted individuals demonstrate tremendous personal courage always dancing with small and more significant missteps that we call failures.  And it is often those leaders that embrace the learning from failures – especially personal ones – that are the same leaders who can scale and grow their organizations.  

We cannot delink groundbreaking successes from failures. Experiencing some failure and mistakes are the only way through to achievements. If we are not failing now and again, we are probably “playing-not-to-lose” (thanks to Robert Anderson and William Adams for the term from their book, Scaling Leadership). If we are not failing, we have not reached for the stars. And we cannot achieve what we don’t strive for.

As Sylvia Megret, COO of ACDI/VOCA, said on my podcast: “Is failure really a bad thing? If not, why not? How do we be okay with not being 100%? Failure is absolutely the key to success. To think that you have only learned by being successful I think is a fallacy. Think about what you learn in life. You don’t learn to walk by just standing up one day.”

My podcast guests and I often talk about failure in terms of their organization and staff, as well as their own experience of failure.  While each of these are important to unpack, the key ingredient that contributes to NGOs being able to scale is their own leaders’ relationship with failure and courage. Leaders that have the capacity and courage to be authentic, imperfect, go public with their own development goals, take reasonable risks, dance with the imposter syndrome and allow their staff to also do so are the leaders who are on the path to scaling and growing their organizations.

Failure is not personal. It is not a sign of loss of self-worth. Let’s normalize failure. Let us start by normalizing it with how we lead our teams and organizations.  

Courage and failure go hand and hand. To quote Carrie Hessler-Radelet, CEO, PCI: “Failure is the flip side of courage.  I just think as a leadership principle we have to accept courage and promote courage and we also have to be willing to embrace failure and all that we learn from it.  Failure is only failure if you don’t learn something from it but if you learn something from it and you can course-correct, then failure becomes a stepping stone to real progress. “

Failure and courage are two essential pre-requisites to scaling organizations and teams. To scale, leaders must scale their leadership abilities, and to scale (or grow) they must step out on the high wire and go forth into new territory. 

Courage is more an act than a feeling.

In my work with many leaders in the NGO sector, the leaders I see successfully scaling their organizations are the ones with personal courage and a willingness to fail in order to succeed. The journey often begins on a personal level, taking fearless self-inventory of leadership strengths and areas for growth, frequently seeking out feedback and transparency growing their leadership abilities. All of this takes courage and a tolerance for failure because failure is inevitable. There can be no great successes without failure. It is that personal willingness to take a fearless self-inventory, identify limiting beliefs, push beyond one’s comfort zone and fail that allows others in the organization to grow, experiment and go beyond self-imposed limits.

Since it starts with you, here is a formula for leading with courage and normalizing failure (with thanks to Robert Anderson and William Adams, authors of Scaling Leadership) that allows your team and organization to scale:

  • Take a fiercely honest inventory of the current reality – both your own and that of your team and organization. Be transparent with your team and organization about the results you are achieving – both those that are consistent and inconsistent with your intended goals.
  • Be courageous and explore what you are doing that is contributing to falling short of the goals that you, your team and the organization has envisioned (good time to harvest the gift of feedback and feedforward).
  • Unpack and uncover your beliefs that may be getting in the way of you being able to unleash the unlimited potential in your team and organization.
  • Commit to daily actions that will shift your leadership towards one that helps the organization and team reach the desired results. Do it all publicly. Be authentic about missteps, failures as well as learnings. Hold yourself accountable. Normalize failures.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, stories and perspectives. You can reach me at lynne@lynnegillilandconsulting.com.