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.