I sat across the table from a leader I respected and listened to him explain the rationale for his actions. He explained and rationalized, but never apologized. He had made a mistake but I could see him struggling to own the failure. He could not bring himself to acknowledge the mistake and offer a sincere apology. I empathized with his struggle. It is one of life’s great challenges to acknowledge our mistakes, own them, learn from them and move on. It is much easier to blame and justify.
Since that encounter, I have ruminated about the role of failure in my life journey and it dawned on me that I have never become good at anything that I did not first fail miserably to accomplish. Eating, walking, talking, spelling, writing, speaking, relationships, driving, managing my time… this list could go on for many pages. In each of these areas of my life, failure was the precursor to success. It would be fair to say that my willingness to persevere in the face of consistent and repeated failure has been the single most important catalyst in the flawed, but growing, man and leader I am becoming.
Unfortunately, failure is often traumatic and stressful. I don’t like failure. It makes me uncomfortable. It embarrasses me. Many of us dedicate much of our adult life to avoiding failure or blaming others for our failure. We often shape our work and life decisions to avoid the appearance of failure. We avoid relationships that have potential for failure or discomfort. We avoid evaluation that might reveal areas for growth. Additionally, when we do fail it is often extremely difficult to own up to it. How much energy have you spent trying to cover up your failures in the past year?
So, if failure is critical to our growth journey and yet all of us hate to fail, how can we integrate a helpful “theology” of failure into our leadership? Let me offer a few observations I have made in my journal over the last months. These are not fully formed thoughts, nor are they definitive. I would be interested to hear your perspective if time and opportunity would allow.
- It is reasonable to respond to pre-failure and post-failure in very distinct ways. As humans, we are predisposed to passionately dislike failure. It is right and helpful to be motivated toward excellence by our dislike for failure. This makes us better workers, parents, spouses, and humans. However, when we have failed it is crucial to pivot away from our distaste for failure and embrace it as a friend. Failure that has occurred is our friend and teacher to the same extent that future failure is our enemy. This is a hard balance to find and sustain. Too many of us spend inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to hide our mistakes in the false hope that this activity will fool those around us.
- I believe that our capacity for growth correlates directly with our ability to correctly handle the emotional, relational and spiritual aspects of our failures. Could it be that as we age and our growth plateaus, that it’s not because we lack intelligence or skill but because of our growing desire to avoid failure? While there is a reasonable expectation that adults would fail less than children, that same expectation misapplied hinders our capacity to grow as we age.
How would it change the way you lead at home and work if you were to view your failures as stepping-stones to your success? How would it change your ministry if you were able to authentically embrace your mistakes? How would it change your preaching if you were to use each sermon as an opportunity to grow as a communicator? How much time do you spend trying to rationalize, blame or hide mistakes and failures? Perhaps the greatest message of the Gospel is that we are defined by our failures only as long as we keep them hidden. In the light of God’s grace, failures become stepping-stones toward our growth and God’s glory.