Understanding failure is a key leadership skill



Knowing how to fail is a key leadership skill.

Failures are unpleasant, but they grab our attention and focus us to integrate new information. Therefore, it is acceptable to fail. We should fail and learn without falling apart. There are people who lived through failure before going on to become names known around the world. Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government that promoted racial segregation in South Africa.

For many people a life sentence would have been absolutely catastrophic and devastating. Nelson Mandela did not falter or despair, so he continued fighting whilst in prison. Despite facing real torture in prison, he was resilient and pursued his vision.

His vision was dismantling the legacy of apartheid by tackling institutionalised racism and fostering racial reconciliation. We know that Nelson Mandela eventually became the President of Democratic South Africa after serving 27 years in prison.

Nelson Mandela had unique underlying abilities. What was unique about Nelson Mandela was that he cultivated his leadership skills, learned more, looked directly at his mistakes, used feedback, and altered his strategies. It was not because he was more skilled or naturally a better leader. Mandela adopted a growth mindset. He believed in his own ability to learn and respond in the face of challenge.

That explains why he was able to excel. There are two fundamental mindsets that people have when it comes to looking at themselves and others, e.g., fixed or growth mindsets. People who have a fixed mindset believe that intelligence, personality, talents, and skills are largely carved in stone and unchangeable. In some situations, this could set oneself up for success or guaranteed failure. People with fixed mindsets do not like trying new things because the risk of failure looms large.

In contrast, people who have a growth mindset do not see intelligence, personality, talent, and skills as fixed or stable. Rather, they see themselves as having potential and, even more important, they see others as having potential.

In terms of bouncing back from hardship, people who have a growth mindset are more resilient. In terms of happiness, people with growth mindsets are happier and less depressed. In terms of facing challenges and adversity people with growth mindsets are more persistent. We should allow ourselves to experience failure early and often. Indeed, there is a sensitive period for growth in our late teens continuing through our early 30s where we quite simply learn how to fail.

As leaders we can cultivate growth mindsets in our teams by how we describe challenges as a test of DNA or as an opportunity to learn. Failures bring value to organisations. Failures give everyone lots of valuable information and create an environment in which teams and leaders do not fear failure. This is what is meant by the learning organisations. The problem with most learning organisations is that everybody wants to learn by observation, not by first-hand experience. We all need to experience failure first hand.


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