Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Failure is not (just) for Failures.

Can I be honest with you? I am a perfectionist. An extreme perfectionist. I hate failing; I hate doing anything "unprofessionally". The worst part is, I think I'm pretty good at it most of the time. I am a straight-A student, a quick learner, and somewhat obsessive. I get upset if I get a grade lower than A in any class, I am devastated whenever I lose at a game. Unfortunately, as I have learned repeatedly including this past week, I will fail. So, what should be the leader's response to failure?

The first step is to admit you've failed. In the midst of the Penn State scandal, it was revealed that the president of the college had known about the sex-abuse and had not done anything about it. How many great leaders have discovered something has failed under their leadership, and not hidden it? When these things remain hidden, the problem will only get worse. The problems grows until eventually, as the former Penn State president learned, it gets out on it's own. The only effective way to deal with failure is to be open and honest about it. Perhaps this is why such great leaders in the old testament like David, Daniel and Nehemiah all took time to confess their personal failures or "sins", or those of their people (2 Sam 12:13, Neh 1:6, Dan 9:1-19). They recognized that the only way for a leader, and those under the leader, to move past failure was to admit it publicly, namely to God.

The second step is to identify why you failed. Do you know what happens after an airplane crashes? After the commotion, cameras and chaos, a special team arrives. This is a team of experts who comb through the wreckage, bit by bit, to find out what happened. This team, called the "Go Team" has the job of finding what caused the crash, so that something like that cannot happen again. This same process must be put forth in the life of a leader. If you failed, you need to go through the circumstances that lead to the failure, the reason for the failure, and possible ways to prevent it.

Once you've identified why you crashed, you must learn from your failure. When I think of someone who learns from failure, I remember a little girl named Hadley. My family has been babysitting Hadley since she was only a few months old (she's now two years old). Hadley was an ambitious child. She set her mind on learning to walk. She kept trying, over and over, and kept falling. As leaders, we are not perfect. We will fail. But Hadley? She kept trying, kept working, and now walks with me through the neighborhood whenever I babysit her. Likewise, we leaders must learn from our failures, to find what works and what does not.

This does not only apply to our personal failures, but to the failures of other leaders. I have had the opportunity of watching some leaders in my life deal with some huge failures. Not only do I see what not to do, but also how they deal with failure. I am humbled and amazed by leaders who learn from their mistakes. A youth pastor that I look up to refused to drive alone with a member of the opposite sex. Why? Because he had seen where other leaders had fallen short, where "crashes" had occurred, and refused to let that happen. He not only learned from his own failures, but from other leader's failures as well.

In summery, a leader has to realize they will fail. In fact, failure might be a good thing for leaders, if they handle it rightly. We need to bring it to light, so that there is accountability and honesty. We should send in our "Go Teams" and find out what went wrong. Then, we have to keep going, and learn from the failures. This will not just help us in the short term, but make us better leaders in the long term.

I lead a bible study monday nights, and last week, some people got honest with me about how I was not doing the job I was supposed to. This was a shock to my system. The more I investigated, I found that they were correct. Last monday night, I got before the whole group and confessed that I had failed. It was painful, and very uncomfortable for me. I then went on to explain that I would do my best to do the job I needed to do. Do you know what happened? We went on to have probably the best night that we've ever had. I realized why I had failed, and I now have a better idea of what to do to prevent it. Failure is not just for failures, but for leaders too. You will never be a good leader, until you're a good fail-er.


  1. Boy this was an interesting post. I keep thinking to the resignation of Pope Benedict and comparing it to the Penn State scandal. As a Christian leader, Pope Benedict is ultimately the top-person-in-charge (on Earth) for the Catholic church. And it has come out that he had intimate knowledge and, in fact, hid/moved very many American priests who were acknowledged and admitted pedophiles. Instead of alerting the appropriate authorities, his office recommended the priests be moved from one parish to another.
    Is there any wonder why he has resigned?

    What is it about human nature to, on the one hand, trust an untrustworthy person (like a pedophile), but on the other hand, not trust in ourselves? Many pastors and church leaders have gone down the wrong path. But not all have. I wonder what it means when a leader doesn't think he (or she) is trustworthy to sit in a car with a member of the opposite sex? Where did personal responsibility and self-control leave the conversation? Maybe I'm interpreting it incorrectly?

    Part of me reads the scenario that you wrote above as akin to some ultra-religious who think women should be veiled because men "can't control themselves," and then this puts the burden on women to change because men (often in leadership roles) have the power differential.

    This post has me going off on all sorts of tangents...

    1. I don't think it's so much of a men "can't control themselves", rather that he didn't even want to give the slightest idea that he would allow such behavior. He valued his own purity as well as the young women's purity, and while he was perfectly self-controled, he didn't want to leave room for any stumbling. It may be the culture of the Evangelical church, but generally we understand people to be nice, but inclined to failure. An unfair judgement? From the cultural perspective of an American, perhaps, but the roots come from our understanding of the bible. Ultimately, he wanted to set a clear example for those under him: be pure, and be responsible with your friends.
      What if the pope made it well known that he refused to be left alone with young boys or girls; not because he is some uncontrolled monster, rather that he wanted to set the example for those under them? Now, I am not well aquatinted with how the Catholic church functions, but it would seem to me that if the Pope was public about the high standard of purity and self-control in his life, those under him might rise to meet it. (Hm, I hope that wasn't offensive.)
      Now, this shouldn't be taken to an extreme. Just because some people have failed in one area or another, does mean that we'll fail the same way. If that were the case, I'm afraid we could never leave our home! But, if a leader is willing to set the bar high in their personal life, to not be irresponsible, to be open and honest, those under him are going to be drawn to that standard, and possibly avoid some of the failures they might encounter.