Leadership Failure or Failed Leadership

Perhaps the greatest fear for leaders today is failure.  Unfortunately, we often equate a “leadership failure” with “failed leadership.” Sound like a technicality of terms?  A leadership failure means you made a poor decision, risked and lost, or tried something new that simply didn’t work.  It typically comes with a big slice of humble pie.  But “failed leadership” indicates a complete leadership meltdown–it’s a loss of character, a growth plateau in competence, a compromise in conviction, or a retreat from courage into comfortable safety.  

“Leadership failure” and “failed leadership” may sound like a slight terminology tweak, but the difference is anything but.  The problem is, when we equate a “leadership failure” with “failed leadership” we retreat to our predictable world of mediocrity.  We stop growing, innovating, creating, and pushing ourselves outside the safety of routines.  Our image becomes our idol and innovation becomes our enemy.  

In their book, A Leader’s Legacy, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner said, “If you’re not willing to fail at what you do, you’ll never become great and you’ll never innovate” (p. 164).  Did you catch that…”If you’re not WILLING to fail…”  In other words, failure has to be an option in your leadership landscape.  It’s not that you want to fail or intentionally choose to fail, but to paint a leadership picture without risk is the equivalent of building your organization on the worn out ideas of yesterday.  The result–“You’ll never become great and you’ll never innovate.”  

So what’s your failure tolerance?  Are you willing to risk so that you can innovate a better tomorrow?  So that you can lead your church, ministry, or organization to a new level?  So that you can fulfill God’s call on your life?  So that you can change the slice of the world God has called you to serve?  Or will you conclude your life and leadership on auto pilot?  

Is failure risky?  Sure it is–but no more risky than the retreat to safety where we stop trusting God because our fear of failure squelches God’s call to change, risk, and courageously lead.  It’s important to understand that failure and success are bedfellows. Michael Jordan said it best: “I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots in my career.  I’ve lost three hundred games.  Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the winning shot and missed.  I’ve failed over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”  

I would rather have multiple leadership failures than be a failed leader.  If your heart is right, you walk humbly with God, you are honest about your mistakes, and you treat others with respect, people can often find it within themselves to forgive you for a leadership failure.  But failed leadership is different–it defines your legacy.