Dread. It’s the sick, hollow feeling deep in your gut that makes you believe your insides are trying to eat their way out. Dread is exactly what Cindy was feeling as she walked into her manager’s office Monday morning. She had been trying all weekend to figure out how to explain the circumstance to Natalie. She knew this new ministry initiative was risky but she didn’t expect it to fail quite as miserably as it had. Today was the day she was going to have to explain what went wrong… an explanation that she was not looking forward to.

Natalie saw the heaviness on Cindy’s countenance the moment she walked in the door. She knew this failed idea had been eating at Cindy, but until she saw her slumped shoulders and fear-filled eyes, Natalie hadn’t realized just how heavy this was for Cindy.

As soon as she closed the door and plopped down in the chair, Cindy jumped into an explanation, “Natalie, I am so sorry for missing the mark on this project. I fully own it. I’m evaluating where we messed up and I assure you it will never happen again.”

Pausing long enough to make poor Cindy squirm even more, Natalie finally responded, “Cindy, I want it to happen again. In fact I hope you’ll take more risks, try more things, and fail a few more times.”

Shocked and puzzled, “Really?” was the only response that Cindy could come up with.

“Cindy, failure is where we learn”, explained Natalie. “When we fail, we know we’re trying to accomplish something significant. C.S. Lewis said, ‘Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.’ I want you—I want us—to achieve great things. Every once in awhile that’s going to require some failure too.”

Do We Embrace Failure?

“Don’t be afraid to fail.”
“Fail forward.”
“Embrace failure.”
“Fail fast.”

These are sentiments a leader boldly chants to his team on a good day. Encouraging employees to not be afraid to fail sounds liberating, motivating, and empowering.

But for most leaders, the chasm is vast between what we chant when we’re feeling good and how we react when things go badly. This chasm between what we say and what we do leaves a black hole that employees would rather avoid. Very few leaders respond with patience and ease like Natalie.

So how do you, as a leader, get serious about embracing failure? How do you reward rather than reprimand your team when they take risks? How can you create a culture where taking risks is more than lip service?

As a leader, you have the opportunity to create a failure-embracing culture. How do we do it? Let’s look at four things we can do to create a culture that is not afraid to fail.

1. Embrace failure yourself. What risk have you taken lately that didn’t turn out the way you anticipated? Rather than hide it or move quickly past it, use it as an opportunity to model the importance of taking risks, experiencing failure, and allowing that failure to shape you. Tell your team what you learned through it and how you’ll grow from it. Allowing them to see you wrestle through failure normalizes failure in your culture.

Allowing them to see you wrestle through failure normalizes failure in your culture.

2. Talk about failure before it occurs. Just like a good SWAT team plans for worst-case scenarios, talk through how you’ll respond and react when your team faces a failure. Define your tactics and have an agreed-upon response plan.

3. Celebrate someone who fails. When a team member fails after trying something new, celebrate it. Celebrate this staff member who wasn’t afraid to take risks and try new initiatives. Use the experience to coach everyone that achieving greatly doesn’t come without failing occasionally.

When a team member fails after trying something new, celebrate it.

4. Coach for the future. Turn every failure into an opportunity for growth. When we fail, it’s easy to shrink back and play it safe. Make sure you and your team are purposeful to lean in and learn from the failure. Is there another way to approach what you were trying to accomplish? Could you think differently about it with the wisdom you gained from a failed attempt and then try again?

The cost of not creating a failure-embracing culture is that we miss opportunities for success. Fear of failure holds us back and limits how much we invest. Limited investment = limited return. We will forever only see a fraction of our potential if failure avoidance is our primary motivator.

Fear of failure holds us back and limits how much we invest.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy once said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

Leaders, let’s embrace failure and let’s achieve greatly!