Letting Go: Embracing Failure

by Ron Potter
Image source: John Athayde, Creative Commons

Image source: John Athayde, Creative Commons

Developing your own untapped and unrefined potential is a bit like remodeling an old house: First, you have to tear out some things—like pride or extreme self-sufficiency or bullheadedness or trying to overcontrol people or ___________ (fill in the blank with some attitude or behavior of yours that makes you say “ouch!”). Today I’ll continue the discussion of letting go of perfection and look at embracing failure.

Letting go will often appear counterintuitive. Let’s imagine you are grasping a rope that is dangling you from a window of a three-story house, which happens to be on fire. Hanging on for your life makes sense only until the firemen come and are stationed below to catch you. Now it makes sense to let go.

Setting the Bar

Rather than setting unrealistic expectations, leaders should expect people to fail and be ready to forgive and move on. Leaders can help an organization learn from its mistakes and push ahead to new innovation and creativity. This idea has been referred to as “failing forward.” People learn from each failure, and the lessons learned are quickly channeled into modifying the plan, design, or strategy.

One of my clients is especially good at learning from failure. This man never seems to be interested in who is at fault but is simply interested in what the current situation is and how to move ahead. That keeps the situation positive as well as focused on learning and making improvements. The person who made the mistake or failed is not forgotten but is mentored and developed for future growth. Or at times the person who failed is assisted in finding another job elsewhere in the company or even with another firm where there’s a better chance for personal success. But the failure is always seen by this effective executive as a learning opportunity rather than an occasion to assign blame.

The irony is that seeking perfection and setting ridiculously high expectations is almost a guaranteed means of lowering performance. It makes everybody uptight. And people “playing tight” are mistake-prone. Failing may become the norm.

You don’t want yourself or others to become dispirited, unable to create or innovate because something deep inside whispers, “What’s the use? I’ll fail anyway.” The way out of this trap is to win some small victories so that confidence returns. Small successes, as they accumulate, can morph into large victories and help restore individual and team trust.

The Flashback Failure

Some leaders are stuck in the past. They may have won big “back in ’09,” and now that shining moment is enshrined in their mental hall of fame. A huge past mistake can have the same result; leaders no longer trust their judgment and can’t move ahead boldly.

Rather than dwelling on past mistakes, leaders need to use those experiences to create new and different solutions.

Do yourself a favor and don’t just become acquainted with failure: Make it your friend.

Get a Grip—Let Go!

Every leader is constantly making choices. Is there a way to make more correct turns at each crossroads we encounter instead of taking long, circuitous routes that cost us time and productivity?

Of course the answer is yes. In fact, once you grasp the concept of letting go, you will be well on your way to successfully developing great qualities in yourself and others.

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