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
Posted in Authenticity & Transparency, Communication and tagged , , , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. Failure can be helpful only if it doesn’t crush your confidence so much that you arent able to benefit from the feedback. Sometimes it takes time to recover ones mojo before being able to process the possibilities.

  2. When you’re younger, I think we take failure too seriously.

    I can see it in my daughter. She’s 25 and thinks she should have figured out her life by now. She’s hard on herself. Not sure what I say, but I always bring it all in perspective for her.

    When I make a mistake, I celebrate! Then I say, “isn’t that interesting.”

    • Ah yes, the Ben Zander approach is wonderful! When a failure occurs, throw your hands in the air and say “That’s interesting!”

      It really does put you in the right state of being to see the situation for what it is.

      Failure is a crucial part of our development. And it is true that paralyzation can occur given the severity of the circumstances. Thus it is key to share stories of recovery. One of my favorite phrases to share with people is it is not about falling down, it is all about how you get back up. So share failures…celebrate them but tie them back to what was gained and how that helped you to take a step forward in your own evolution.

      Bruises, cuts and scars are badges of honor. Resiliency is a key attitude and a key behavior to foster.

  3. Good technique I liked it but honestly firing your staff is one of the hardest task for the leader to decide unless the clear reson is available.

  4. Obviously reading back through the files here, but just had to pop in and add that “Failing Forward” is one the best books I’ve ever read by John Maxwell (and I’ve read a lot of his books!). I read it at a time in my life when I really needed to understand that it wasn’t that *I* was a “failure”, rather that I had EXPERIENCED failure, and should learn from t in order to move forward. Since then, I keep a copy of this book on hand at all times to give away if necessary. 🙂

    • Carrie, I am so glad you are reading some of the older stuff! Yes, that’s one of my favorite books too… failure is an “experience” and not who we are …. I truly believe failing forward is one of life’s most important offerings. Namaste.

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