Failing Upwards: 2 Ways to Lead through Failure
Updated: May 21
Leaders manage a number of activities. How do you keep it all straight? How do you keep it all together when you're not sure what direction is the right one? How do you build trust in a team when you mess it all up?
That was the predicament I found myself in when I brought a team of experts together to chart a new way forward where none of us knew the next step to take. To start the meeting, I had an agenda and agreed with the participants what I was hoping to achieve. That's a good start but in my haste to set the groundwork
I forgot to paint a clear picture of the problem statement
Even though we were all from the same organization, I neglected to allow everyone the opportunity to introduce themselves
In the middle of a high level meeting, what would you do? Here's what I did.
Someone asked more about the problem statement and someone from the team reminded me of a figure we had that clearly depicted it. I brought it up and we discussed it but the leadership nugget was in how I handled the situation so here are two ways that might help you to lead through failure.
When I was interrupted by a question, one of the things I made sure I did publicly was to gratefully acknowledged the one who brought up the question as well as my team member for reminding me about the figure. My job was to bring the group together but as a leader, I don't have all the answers. Sometimes, I may be too close to the problem to recognize what others don't know.
Speaking publicly in a meeting can be a daunting and scary task for some people, even leaders. Some people need to feel that they are in a safe place where they can express their thoughts and ideas. When leaders express gratitude when someone chooses to speak it helps to create that safe space. When leaders encourage dialogue and let others see and hear how positively people get treated when they interrupt or ask questions, allows this community space to develop where ideas, thoughts and voices are generously welcomed.
Acknowledge your failure and address it
Being wrong can be a scary process. We want to cover up a mistake, that's why white-out was created but a mistake and failure are important to recognize. There is no need to beat yourself up about it but you can use it as an opportunity to create and encourage space for failure.
I've had some coaching clients who were so fearful of failure, they wouldn't speak or present work unless they had vetted all the possible outcomes. That's great for quality control but not when you're trying to lead, brain storm or encourage group collaboration. As a matter of fact, it can stifle productivity.
In my case I humorously acknowledged midway through our meeting that I forgot to allow everyone to introduce themselves, "And here your absent minded leader forgot that not everyone in here may know each other. Let's back up and fix that now if you don't mind." Everyone laughed and we proceeded to have one of the most engaging and spirited dialogues we've ever had, towards a future vision we were all excited about.
It takes courage to be able to acknowledge your own failings. It takes vulnerability to do that but when leaders practice measured vulnerability, it creates a trusting space and workforce. What others are seeing is a picture of what it looks like to lead. As a leader, you are modeling behaviors, always. Someone is watching you and learning. What are you communicating by your actions or reactions?
Another opportunity for vulnerability surfaced while we were discussing unchartered territory. I acknowledged I didn't have all the answers and didn't know all the steps we needed to take but I did voice, that we would do this together. That is measured vulnerability. Acknowledge what is present and what is uncomfortable. As a leader you don't need to have the answers but you do need to support your staff. Practice measured vulnerability and you create trust with your teams. That's the easy part, maintaining it, is harder. For more leadership nuggets, join my Insider Community.
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