Failing Better: Please Help Me Fail

Failing happens. Helping our teams to learn from failure can be one of the most vital aspects of our role as leaders. Even when the situation seems devastating, how we show up can make a tremendous difference in someone’s growth.

John Maxwell talks about this well in “Failing Forward.” In fact, I have bought many copies of his work, and have shared them over the years when the time seemed right. I have also used the concepts to help recover from my own mishaps.

Failure is the key to success. Many so-called “failures” are just steps along the journey.

But what about when we really screw up?

Here’s my first big leadership memory on the subject. It was over a decade ago a pivotal moment in my leadership development. It happened in my pajamas.

I hadn’t slept all night. I was completely stressed because I had to terminate several employees that morning for integrity violations. I fully agreed with the decision, but that did not make it much easier. I ran approaches to the meeting in my mind all night long nothing I could think to say seemed right.

Then, my husband poured me a cup of coffee and said, “look, if I was going to be fired, I would want to be fired by you.”

That was it.

I completely changed my approach. I threw away my imaginary script and just showed up.

I met with each person. I listened with my heart, and then I fired them. But then, we talked deeply about what they had learned dreams, hopes, talents, skills and next steps. I don’t know what those guys are up to now. But I do know that at the end of each meeting, I heard the same reaction, a real “Thank you.”

Since then, I have had the privilege to support many small and big fails (and consequently many small and big wins).

Stuff that can help:

  • Stay calm
  • Be calming
  • Ask a lot of provoking questions
  • Ask some more questions (look for patterns)
  • Ignite confidence
  • Listen for a clear recovery plan
  • Establish a time to check-in