Training Industry


  • How to Use Failure as a Strategic Tool

Six staff members piled into their leader’s office late in the afternoon, insisting that she listen to their “BIG problem” and assign the necessary blame and, above all, “fix it.”  They were upset, pointing fingers and saying the ball had been dropped.

After listening to their stories, she said, “Clearly, as the leader of this project, I must have blown it, and I apologize. I must have missed something and made an incorrect assumption about who was doing what. This is my responsibility, overall, so how can I correct it going forward and help each of you get back on board?”

Six sets of eyes were riveted on her, and six mouths dropped open.  She waited. Then they started falling over themselves telling her that she really wasn’t on the front line of this so how could she know. After all, they should have seen the first signs of a breakdown in communication. One at a time, they took back every piece of the responsibility for what had gone wrong. Better yet, they decided it wasn’t that serious once they looked at it together.  The six of them understood what had to be done and away they went.  Sweet!

The moral of the story: As a leader, it can be a smart strategy to take ownership for failing to lead in the way people thought they wanted/needed and then engage them to get things right. 

There are organizations that celebrate “failures” every week in bright lights on their internal announcement board.  Their intent is to fail fast and fail often so when they win, they win big.  It works for them because the creativity and innovation that happens amongst their people is off the charts.  That may sound way too risky for some, but the risks they take are reasonable as well as time and money bound.

They use a “pilot it” model of measured risk. This model allows unexpected issues to be identified while real time evaluation occur every step of the way.  There is wisdom in having more eyes and minds on a process or product because it can lead to improvements or even a rejection in favor of something that is actually a better solution.

Accepting the joy and learning that come from failures can be uplifting and even motivating. People learn what works and what does not work.  When the right evaluative process is in place, failures can save bucket loads of resources -- human and otherwise -- the next time.

When mistakes are not a crime and innovation is deeply imbedded in the culture, “happy accidents” happen. Post-It Notes from 3M is one of the most famous examples.  Failure is a known fact of life for artists, doctors, scientists, architects, engineers, writers…truly, any profession; it’s how people respond and what they do with “happy accidents” that matters.

The only question to ask is, “Do we embrace mistakes or ignore and hide them?” When learning from mistakes is welcomed and honored within the culture, people are more candid, leaders are not kept in the dark, and learning happens. Without a culture where failure and mistakes are seen as part of the growth and innovation process, people keep secrets.  Before long, the “emperor has no clothes!” The best leaders make sure they know the truth, they don’t shoot messengers, and they definitely don’t fear failures. 

Leadership authority Roxana (Roxi) Bahar Hewertson, CEO of Highland Consulting Group, Inc., has spent her entire career revealing myths and honing truths as to what makes a leader successful in their role…or not.  Revered for her no nonsense, nuts-and-bolts, tell-it-like-it-is approach, Hewertson helps both emerging and expert leaders boost quantifiable job performance in various mission critical facets of business, including service, sales, education/training, productivity, and profits, to achieve or exceed organizational and career goals. She may be reached at




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