As you develop, grow, and do your best there will be setbacks. In fact you’re going to run headlong into the path of something most of us will go to great lengths to avoid: failure. The important thing to remember is that leadership success comes from failure. Sometimes many, many failures.

Tragically some of us avoid failure by avoiding those activities in which we aren’t sure we can succeed, but here’s the truth: if you aren’t failing at least occasionally, you aren’t doing anything of long-term value for yourself or others…

Now, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely want to avoid failure in everything I do. I work for success and I expect excellence in others and in myself. So why do I fail? Why will you fail?

Failing means learning something new.

We are most vulnerable to failure when we are trying something new, in other words, when we are learning. The bigger the lesson, the higher the potential benefit, and the more dramatic the failure is likely to be.

An Olympic hopeful learning a new vault is going to have some spectacular failures, and probably more than a few injuries as a result. But when she finally reaches the goal, in this case a new skill, her chances for gold are increased dramatically.

Likewise as you progress through your academic and into your professional career, and even in your personal life, you will be learning big lessons. When you are successful the first time out, you will feel pretty good, but will learn only little that can applied elsewhere. This is because you completed something that you were already equipped to do.

Failure, it might be good for you, but it still sucks.

Failure is still unpleasant, usually for everyone involved, and in some cases is pretty costly.

After any one failure you cannot guarantee, to yourself or to others, that you will make your goal on the next attempt. But what you can, and should, expect is not to repeat the same failure twice. As you are failing in new ways you are still learning. When you start to repeat past failures—failing at the same place in the same way—you’ve stopped learning and you need to step back and figure out why.

As a leader you have another obligation, besides just understanding and acting upon your own failures. You have to allow failure in those around you, and in those on your team. In fact, for long term growth and real innovation, you have to, as a leader, encourage your team to put themselves in situations where failure is an option. And you also have to be prepared for those failures, and know how you are going to react to protect the business when they do happen.

Recognize failure as the currency of success, not as an occasion for recrimination and remorse.


John West is a Senior Fellow in the DoD High Performance Computing Modernization Program, and author of the book The Only Trait of a Leader, a field guide to success for new engineers, scientists, and technologists. John was recently selected by HPCwire as one of "People to Watch" in the supercomputing industry, and is a frequent writer and speaker on leadership issues technology professionals. His blog is Info


  1. Hi, loved this segment. Here is a recent One Minute Motivator of mine that ties in with it:

    Is it an embarrassment, or is it a learning experience? When things go wrong, you can look at it as an embarrassment, or you can look at it as a learning experience. How you choose to look at it , can make the difference between getting better, or being forced to repeat the experience again. Learn from your mistakes, donâ??t hide them.

    OK thanks and keep up the good work, Ed Smith

  2. I just found this:

    “One of the most basic issues we face in our lives is the feeling of failure or guilt. I come from a family where F stood for feedback (or flow) and not failure. F’s on a test meant a failed test and not a failure as a human being. F’s helped me find my place in the universe because the family attitude was, “It was meant to be.” And now we would see what good would come of this event.” — Bernie S. Siegel, MD

  3. Thanks for this one Geri. It is something I need to learn a lot from. I wasn’t brought up in an environment as Dr Siegel describes, for me failure meant I wasn’t good enough. Now I’m learning this is not so. That feels good and motivating. So thanks again.

  4. From Success Intelligence (the book) :-

    * Failures are not bad. As Shakespeare wrote, ‘Nothing
    is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,’ Hamlet
    (Act II, sc ii). Every person has the divine right to handle a
    failure wisely or foolishly.
    * Failures can be good. It takes great learning to realise
    that every event has some benefit, some wisdom and
    some gift. Some of the best gifts may come badly
    * Failures are lessons. Each success and each failure
    is part of a highly individualised curriculum which teaches
    you about the true value of all things.
    * Failures teach success. You can use failure to teach
    you about success. Failure is not the only way to learn
    about success, but when it happens be sure to benefit
    from it.
    * Failures are not final. ‘Fall down seven times, get up
    eight,’ says the Japanese Proverb. A failure is not the end
    of the story; it can be the start of something new.
    An effective Failure Policy recognises that your worst failures
    can be your best learning opportunities if used wisely.
    Recall some past failures in:
    1. your work;
    2. your relationships; and,
    3. your life.
    Identify the lessons of each failure. Assess how well you have
    learned the lessons, so that they need not be repeated.
    Next, think about a current relationship, project or situation
    that is not going as well as you would like.
    Ask yourself, ‘What am I being asked to learn?’ Listen and
    then lead with your best wisdom.

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