4 strategies leaders can use to learn from failure
Mistakes can lead to our greatest lessons in both work and life. Yet, it can be incredibly challenging to embrace them. A 2022 study found that a fear of failure deters 43.1% of potential entrepreneurs in the U.S. With this fear in mind, how can leaders start learning from failure?
Robert “Cujo” Teschner, founder & CEO of VMax Group and 2022 Vistage Speaker of the Year, and Corinne Hancock, crisis coach and keynote speaker, review their tips and strategies on failure.
Failure is inevitable
“Leaders and people that are high-achieving are always going to experience failure,” says Hancock, “because it’s the only way we grow. It’s the only way to push yourself forward [and] challenge the status quo.”
Teschner agrees: “Failure is an inherent part of innovation.” If we don’t fail, he explains, it’s because we’re not challenging ourselves. “In fact, you probably want to figure out how to fail more frequently.”
It’s also essential to define failure for yourself. Hancock points out that failure can be a gray area.
“How are we identifying failure?” she asks. “Is it a missed sales goal? Is it a customer unhappy with a product? Are there contracts that were broken due to mistakes?”
In any of these cases, the only true failure occurs if you don’t learn from your errors.
Top 4 strategies leaders can use to learn from failure
Learning from failure is a vital skill, but that’s easier said than done in a culture that stigmatizes mistakes. Here, we offer our four best strategies for leaders and organizations to learn and grow from failures.
As Hancock says, strategies like these can unlock the “transformative power” of failure, leading to “resilience, innovation, adaptability and empathy.”
1. Build a learning culture
Teschner’s best strategy is to become a “learning organization.” The key to achieving this, he says, is to harness accountability without punishment, blame or passing the buck.
Within a learning organization, you can focus on what happened and why rather than on who is at fault. “If you focus on the impact first, you’re going to be able to take out the defensiveness that people feel,” says Hancock.
Another component of a learning culture is that leaders must be able to acknowledge their imperfections and mistakes.
“I would really want leaders to start analyzing their own decision-making,” says Hancock. “What do they do when they make a wrong decision, how quickly can they evaluate it and refocus on the mission?”
She also recommends approaching the situation with curiosity rather than reactivity.
Leaders can then share their failures and the lessons they’ve learned with their teams. An attitude of openness and humility helps reduce the negativity that often surrounds failure. Both Hancock and Teschner say that leaders must create a space where it’s “safe to fail.”
2. Focus on detection
Teschner recommends a team lifecycle that incorporates debriefing and post-mission analysis. The lifecycle should also include what Teschner calls a “pre-debrief.”
“Don’t wait until an outcome to have a debrief,” he says. “Don’t wait until after we crash the car to realize we probably should have taken care of the brakes.” Instead, teams should review whether they’re on track for success throughout a project. “Why don’t we assess while we’re going along — hey, there’s a check brake light on.”
Hancock also uses an analogy to explain how to spot failure, drawing on her past training as a wildland firefighter.
“Fire is very unpredictable — but it’s actually very predictable,” she says. “Failure is very similar because you never know when or where the fire will start. [But] we have environments that start to give us clues: it’s dry, it’s windy. We have high lightning storms. Things like that may increase the chances” of a fire.”
Clues that a business failure is coming include the time of year, a certain customer or contract, and factors such as staff shortages and tight cash flows. “Keep looking at all of the factors surrounding the situation because something very unpredictable does become predictable,” explains Hancock.
3. Analyze failure
It’s tough to learn from failure if you don’t understand why it happened.
According to Hancock, “There has to be a true and authentic evaluation and assessment of the experience.” She advises asking questions like, “Was this a realistic mission in the first place? What did we miss? What did we do really well, and what did we really screw up on?” Answering these questions will help you avoid problems the next time.
As Teschner puts it, organizations “need to ritually analyze both successes and failures.” The analysis shouldn’t be focused on blame or finger-pointing but on creating a strategy for future resilience.
4. Adopt a growth mindset
A growth mindset is crucial for learning from failure. With this outlook, team members can view their mistakes as opportunities to learn.
A shift in mindset also means that people won’t try to hide their errors or blame others. When everyone takes accountability, the whole team can learn.
“As leaders, we need to see failure for the good it can provide us, and then we’ve got to shift our mindset,” explains Teschner. “A mindset that we have to have as leaders is that we’re not a team until we fail well together.”
Hancock shares that with the right mindset, people can realize that a failure “is actually an incredible opportunity for growth.” But she warns against toxic positivity — it’s important to recognize that failing hurts and to acknowledge those feelings without judgment or shame.
Reducing the stigma of failure
It takes courage to embrace errors, mistakes, and imperfections. By recognizing their failures, leaders can reduce the stigma and encourage their teams to do the same.
For Hancock, this means reminding people that failure “is a way to ultimately achieve the success that we’re all looking for.”
Teschner takes inspiration from Anne Frank, a paragon of bravery. Frank wrote in her diary, “How noble and good everyone could be if, at the end of each day, they were to review their own behavior and weigh up the rights and wrongs.”
With the right perspective, our “wrongs” can be our best teachers.