This is one of a series of questions I ask every student during their interview for a leadership position. More often than not, they seem confused by the question. They usually respond with some derivative of “Wow, that’s a hard question” or “I am not really sure I have ever thought about it.”Even those who do articulate their process seem to reflect a belief that there is a path of leadership that is somehow void of failure. They are even more perplexed when I follow-up with, “I ask this question because I am less concerned with if you fail, as much as I am concerned how you will navigate it when you do. You will, in some way, fail this year”.
It seems odd to begin a new academic year already considering the ways in which our students will drop the ball. After all, this is supposed to be the ‘pep rally’ part of the year. I have come to believe, however, that a culture infused with the concept of navigating failure is essential to growing healthy leaders — leaders that have the potential for longevity. It is also a concept that is completely foreign to most young leaders. They have grown up in a culture in which they received trophies for just showing up and played games where no one kept score. While this has certainly bolstered a healthy self-image for our students, it has also robbed them of the small life opportunities that help them solidify their ability to come back after they fail. In many ways it serves to concrete this idea that success is the only option and that they will achieve it 100% of the time.
So what happens when a student of this culture faces the potential for failure?
- They learn to only pursue opportunities where they know they will succeed. They stop trying new things. They learn to avoid risks and become leery of the exploration process.
- They begin to believe that bailing out is the only option after failure. They start to believe that to fall short of any perception of success should result in complete removal from that situation.This is why, in many cases, student leaders quit after the first bump in the ministry road.
So what can we do to help student understand and navigate failure right from the start?
- Desensitize them the notion of failure. As ministers/leaders, we have the ability to take the sting out of failure by including it as a vital part of leadership development. Help them understand it is a when not if scenario. We can’t just help them achieve, we must help them develop.
- Model the belief that “Failure isn’t fatal”. Kevin Leman and William Pentak talk about this a great deal in their book The Way of the Shepherd. Once we help students understand that failure is a significant part of leadership, we often have to journey with them back from immediate inclinations to simply walk away. We have to reiterate our belief in them both as individuals and as leaders. We can be the first step in the long road of understanding fully the notion that while they may have failed, they are not failures.
How do you see your students responding to their own failure? As you begin your new ministry season, in what ways are you preparing for both the successes and failures of your students? What are some of the most significant ways you have seen student develop after failure?