On life…and learning

Leadership and Failure

with 6 comments

October 15, 2011. It is 10pm in India. Indian cricket team has just won today’s ODI against England! Hurray! Dhoni scored a match-winning knock and was awarded “Man of the Match.” He rocks!

Don’t you feel strange? This very Indian team was written off only a month ago – obituaries were writ all over. I remember reading how the team has let the nation down and that Dhoni needs to review his captaincy, he needs rest!

A month ago, they had all failed, and their leader, Dhoni, failed miserably…

Strange is this word, failure. I have always found it even stranger when linked to the failure of a leader. We love to crucify our leaders when they fail. Analysis-paralysis is done to see what went wrong, and most often, the leader of the pack is packed!

Our corporate world is even more incriminating. It just doesn’t allow people to fail – there isn’t a room of acceptance or acknowledgement of failure. In case a leader fails, she is impeached brutally. We just don’t read the two words – leadership and failure – together.

I have always found this ironical. I my view, leaders must fail. They must learn to fail and sometimes, fail spectacularly. I know you may find it stupid for me to say so. Let me explain…

A leader is often considered above the followers. A person of higher skill, intelligence, authority, command and even a master of the trade. She shouldn’t fail – she has to succeed in everything she does – that’s why she is the leader and that’s why people follow her. She can’t fail…

Only, if that were true…

Leaders are very human – just like the rest of the humankind. They are not leading because they are BEST at everything their followers do and know; they lead for they are good with people, good with managing their talent and ambition. There is no guarantee that a great software engineer would become a great Project Leader too. And we would all agree, even the ones so called best-in-class fail to lead a team, unless and until they know how to manage people and make them deliver their best. Now, that has no bearing altogether on the leader’s expertise of the craft in question.

In my view, all leaders have a right to make mistakes, right to fail. They just need to have a will and skill to recover faster than other who failed, and document the learning immediately for others to learn from it. I remember reading somewhere, “One fails faster towards success.” Failure is a part of winning, and if leaders are the one who guide us towards success, they must be allowed to falter, to bite dust. More so, because every failure is a mere event and not a person called Leader. What matters is the lesson, the learning, the will to accept the failure and the resolve not to repeat the same mistake. Now, if failures aren’t tolerated at all, there won’t be any learning and improvement too. Won’t that be too dangerous a situation for the growth of the organizations, nations and humankind?

My fundamental belief is – failures make leaders appear a little more vulnerable, a little more human and much closer to their followers. We connect with people who are like us. We don’t want our leaders to be necessarily infallible; we want them to standby with us when we fail, and pull us out of our debacles. Now, if we could witness our leaders rising from their ashes, I believe, our resolve in them would increase manifold. Then, shouldn’t we allow our leaders to fail at times?

In modern day organizations, we keep hearing words like ‘risk-taking.’ We attach considerable merit to this phrase, and also call it a leadership quality. We encourage risk-taking and offer rewards for successful outcomes; praise the leaders for taking well-planned risks. Now, don’t we fail sometimes when we take risks? We do. But the same modern day organizations impeach the leaders without a second thought, when they fail. No wonder, average shelf life of a CEO in the USA is close to only 2 years! Why would any leader take risks then? And we all know, how slow the pace of growth would be, if leaders wouldn’t take risks!

Samuel I. Hayakawa once said, “Notice the difference between what happens when a man says to himself, “I have failed three times,” and what happens when he says, “I am a failure.”” 

I allow myself to fail. I have failed on several occasions in my life, even failed spectacularly at times. And each time, learnt an invaluable lesson – of not repeating the reason of my failure. Each failure has made me stronger, better, enriched. It brought new learning, it made me braver. My failures opened the new doors too. I am a better leader by allowing myself the freedom to fail. Today, I allow my team-members their share of failures, their share of mistakes. I already see them doing the same with their teammates…it is absolutely infectious, a matter of culture, and translates into an inevitable quality of a leader – to try to do better, to fail, to learn from that failure, teach others how not to fail at the same thing twice, and to keep pushing the envelope.

Do you?


Photo-credit: ashepherdsheart.blogspot.com

Written by RRGwrites

October 15, 2011 at 2:18 AM

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. You’re correct. It is very different when we switch from “I have failed…” to “I’m a failure.” It’s tempting sometimes in self-pity to make the jump, but failure is nothing but a judgement about an outcome. Seth Godin once said anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. We can’t give up and decide we’re always going to fail. Or we will.

    Mike Henry Sr.

    October 18, 2011 at 5:13 AM

  2. Hello Sir,
    Very insightful article, one line in your blogs caught my attention and I think that’s where a true leader set himself apart from others and that is they know or figure out the reason for their failure… I believe they are those few who might have failed the most because they must have tried the most… And always kept trying unless and until they reach their goals… They simply learnt from their failures… Figured out the Reasons for it and as you said did not repeat those… And as it is always said you fail when you think that you have failed so should not give up for any reason. It reminded me a wonderful lesson by Mr. Kuldeep Sharma my favourite professor in MBA and would like to share it here, … “When your mind says should I try it one more time….????? Then Instead of thinking What if I would fail…??? Always ask yourself… WHY NOT….????? ‘’ It always helps to come out of the dark.”

    Sunanda Sharma

    August 5, 2013 at 11:58 PM

    • Hi Sunanda,
      Thanks for your comments. You have a very valid point. It is very important to allow mistakes and take failures in stride. And it is quintessential for the leader to build a culture where people learns and documents the reasons behind failure; set a process for others to follow so that they don’t fail at least for the same reason.


      August 6, 2013 at 7:02 AM

  3. Hello Sir,

    Your articles are simply vitamin dose for me. I like the way you write…its simple and yet so effective.

    Keep writing Sir!!!


    Sweta Sinha

    September 20, 2013 at 10:17 AM

  4. Reblogged this on RRGwrites and commented:

    Feb 2015. It is Cricket World Cup time again. Whenever we say Indian Cricket – two words come instantly to my mind – leadership and failure.
    Nearly 4 years ago, I wrote this blog. Reblogging today. Nothing has changed – it is same cricket, same learning on leadership and same strange reactions to failure…
    Probing, in my own way – a link of leadership and failure… Read on…


    February 4, 2015 at 1:00 PM

  5. Learning from your article Sir; Leadership & Failure goes with experience;
    “Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you.”


    Venkat Raman

    February 8, 2015 at 9:53 PM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: