F-word - transforming failure

Leaders who learn – transforming failure!

Remember the F-word?

“Which F-word, in particular?” you ask. I’m talking about Failure.

Are you a leader who learns from failure? And if so, how? How do you define and respond to failure? And how does this manifest in your team?

When others fail, we respect them for even trying. We encourage them to dust themselves off and try again. We don’t berate them for failing, or repeatedly remind them how disappointed we are – do we?

Yet, when we fail, how do we respond? Are we as kind and encouraging to ourselves as we are to a friend? Or are we upset and angry? Do we mull over our failings, making ourselves feel bad all over again? In a nutshell, are we leaders who learn from our failures?

Seth Godin said, “Failure demands a response. But the status quo is embraced and, incredibly, protected.”

So, rather than ignoring it, or being crippled by it, maybe we can put failure to good use. Managing our feelings around failure is all part of being an emotionally intelligent and resilient leader. It’s a skill and quality of self-leadership that will not only improve your personal performance, but also enhance your relationships – improving organisational effectiveness and productivity.

As leaders, we have the opportunity to empower others to successfully deal with failure. And this process of self-reflection helps us to build resilient leaders.

When you think about times that you’ve failed – do they still give you an emotional response? Are you still upset that you failed to get that contract in 2015? Or that you failed that exam when you were 16? Believe me, some people still suffer from their past failures, rather than making failure work for them.

Resilient people have the capacity to bounce back from adversity and failure. So, how do they do it?

And, as leaders, how can we support others to transform their own failure?


curious mindset

How to be a leader who learns

1. Have a learning mindset

Some people believe they can’t change – they are ‘born failures’ or ‘unlucky’. They have a fixed mindset. The truth is, our brains are malleable, and this plasticity helps us to learn, develop and grow in many areas, including personality traits and qualities, as well as in skills and behaviours. Those who appreciate that they have a ‘learning mindset’ understand that anything can be learned, and learning is a process of change. Leaders are in a constant state of perpetual learning.

2. Accept the learning

There’s a saying: ‘There is no failure. Only feedback.’ Use your experience and learn from it. From what went wrong, identify what you’d do differently next time. After ‘failing’, people can get locked into negative feelings. Leave those behind and take only the learning forward.

3. Understand that trial and error is perfectly necessary

The whole of our scientific body of knowledge was gained through experimentation. And there is probably not a process, product or service in the world that wasn’t developed, improved and perfected through the practice of trial and error, or experiential learning. We learn from mistakes. Creative problem-solving through trial and error has been proven to be a most effective tool in enhancing personal and team performance, providing skills transferable to other tasks. So, try things, make errors, review, and make revisions, to improve. It’s not just acceptable – it is necessary.

Comfort zone

4. Feel uncomfortable

Learning only takes place outside your comfort zone. Remember how awkward and uncomfortable it feels to learn something new – like in your first driving lesson. But now, you drive without even thinking about it. We must go through that conscious discomfort of learning. If you always stay within your comfort zone (like in your armchair at home), you’ll never grow, develop, embrace new experiences and learn new skills. Therefore, accept the challenge and discomfort of failure, and embrace it for your growth and development. It’s all part of the learning process.

5. Use solution-focused thinking

People who are adversely affected by failure – or who fear failure – are problem-focused thinkers. They get bogged down in feelings of helplessness and passive acceptance of failure.  Use a solution-focused approach – that is, instead of dwelling on the problem (failure), focus on the solution (success). And take action.

6. Remember – it’s not personal

So, don’t take failure personally. Some people take on failure as an identity level belief – ‘I am a failure’! You might have failed in something, but that doesn’t mean you are a failure. See a differentiation between whatever happened (the failure event or action) and yourself – a perfect individual! Separate what you do (your behaviour and actions) from who you are. After all, we are human beings, not human doings.

7. Find the positive

Use negative experiences and take a positive meaning from them. Whether that’s by finding the learning in a situation, to do things differently – and better – next time; or by concentrating on your strengths and positive qualities to reframe the experience; or by seeing the upside of a disappointing outcome. It helps to find a positive.

8. Embrace failure – be a leader who learns

As a leader who learns – embrace failure. Decide to be fearless of failure. Make failure your friend. Put it to good use, through the methods above – or develop your own. It’s all good.

Keep failing, keep learning, keep growing. Instead of using this F-word as a curse – consider it a blessing.

So, a couple of questions as food for thought –

  • What has been your best failure? And what did you learn from it?
  • What has been your best failure as a leader and how has it helped you and your team grow and develop?


Remember, the best leaders are the best learners  – those who faciltiate learning, growth, and innovation by creating space to think, question, experiment, and learn as part of delivering and leveraging results.

And if you haven’t already, download my new resource Designing Your Leadership Self-Reflection Practice – Guided Writing Prompts – packed with tips, tools, and guided prompts to launch your leadership self-reflection practice as you continue to grow and evolve your leadership.

Email me: palena@unabridgedleadership.com

Visit my website: www.unabridgedleadership.com

Please feel free to like and share my posts. Contact, link and follow me.

LinkedIn: Palena Neale

Twitter: @PalenaNeale