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As a leader, how do you deal with failure and mistakes?

A young, company commander in the Army was leading an operation at the National Training Center. During a battle exercise, his company was wiped out. As you can imagine, those conducting the “after action review” had a lot to say to him.  He described it as “leadership by humiliation.”

After the review, this young commander walked out feeling pretty lousy—in his words, “as low as a snake’s belly in a wagon rut.” Later that day, when the young company commander saw his battalion commander, he went up to him to apologize for letting him down. What his battalion commander said changed his whole perception on failure.

“Stanley, I thought you did a great job,” he said. 

This young company commander is now General Stanley McChrystal, and this moment taught him that “leaders can let you fail and yet not let you be a failure.” 

General McChrystal recounts this story in his wonderful Ted Talk, “Listen, Learn . . . Then Lead.” https://www.ted.com/talks/stanley_mcchrystal#t-438857.    

Failure is hard—for all of us. It’s so hard, in fact, that I’ve been called on many times over the years just to help people handle failure in a constructive way. Whenever I get these calls, I can share my very own Stanley McChrystal Story. 


My story: how I learned that failing is not the same as being a failure

My first real job was working as an oil and gas lease broker for my Uncle Bob. My Uncle Bob was direct—you could say he was blunt—and he had a well-earned reputation for being very demanding. One day, I had taken a lease and I felt that I may have made a mistake.  So I told him, and he confirmed my suspicion.

At that point in life, I took mistakes very hard, so I felt bad about my error. After I told my Uncle Bob about it, I just stood there, waiting for him to yell at me. But he didn’t. After a few moments, all he said was, “Is there something else?”

I said, “Well, I’m sorry I let you down. Aren’t you mad at me?”

He paused, and then he said to me, “Son, you didn’t let me down. Did you know how to do what you failed to do?”

I said, “No.”

“Then why would I be mad at you for something you didn’t understand?” He went on, “I’ve explained where you went wrong. Do you understand now?”

I said, “Yes, sir.”

“You’re doing a good job,” he said. “But if you make the same mistake again, I’ll be happy to tear you a new a—hole.”

Thank God for that dear man.

In that moment, my Uncle Bob taught me the same lesson Stanley McChrystal learned from his battalion commander: Mistakes are an inevitable part of doing something new. It’s not the mistake itself but how you recover from it that creates growth and success.

As a leader, Learn to be failure-tolerant.

Both McChrystal and my Uncle Bob are examples of what Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes call failure-tolerant leaders. These are leaders who help people handle failure in a constructive way. They help people, like me, understand that you can fail and yet not be a failure.

By contrast, being a failure-intolerant leader triggers fear. We’ve all had an over-critical manager who consistently rips people for making mistakes. These leaders may make their teams hesitant to take action at all. As a result, they may become too careful and may even resort to hiding their mistakes.

I’ve seen again and again that the most resilient individuals and organizations aren’t the ones that don’t fail or make mistakes. Rather, they are the ones that do fail and then learn from the failure.

As a leader, you have a great opportunity to help those you lead see their honest mistakes (mistakes not caused by carelessness or bad intent) in a better light—as opportunities for learning and growth.

Build a more resilient team through failure-tolerant leadership.

Do you want to lead a resilient organization, one that recovers quickly from difficulties and attracts, empowers, and retains bold, courageous people? Be a failure-tolerant leader. As your team takes on new challenges, lift them up, teach them that they can fail and yet not be failures, and help them learn from their mistakes.

Are you ready to help your executives and managers maximize their leadership potential? I’m ready to start that conversation today. Let’s talk!

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