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7 failures of leadership and what we should learn from them

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This post is by Terry “Starbucker” St. Marie, co-founder (with Liz Strauss) of SOBCon, a learning forum for small and medium-sized business owners in the U.S. Terry and Liz have recently launched Inside-Out Thinking, another venture that brings their SOBCon innovation and business experience to the corporate world through leadership training, customer care, and social media programs.  He will be speaking at SOBCon 2011, which will be held in Chicago from April 29 to May 1.

“Success covers a multitude of blunders.” That was a famous quote from George Bernard Shaw, and it has stuck with me throughout my career.

What it ultimately told me was, yes, I was going to fail — multiple times. But if I was truly determined to overcome, or “cover” them, I absolutely needed to learn from every failure and leverage that accumulated learning into success.

In so many ways, I’ve grown to appreciate my failures, as counterintuitive as that may seem. Because I now know if I just let them go, without reflection, then they are doomed to be repeated.

There are seven failures that I believe bring the best improvement opportunities:

  • Failure to prioritize. Many a bad decision has come from our lack of perspective on the importance of one thing over another. The key learning here is to fully grasp the concept of “opportunity cost” — the cost of not doing something in favor of something else.
  • Failure to decide. If the buck is going to stop with us, then we need the courage to make timely decisions, regardless of consensus or not having 100% of the information needed to make them. We learn that more often than not, it’s better to “do something” then let fear and inertia overtake us.
  • Failure to progress. When a target is reached, the bar must be raised. And when that target is hit, it must be raised again. And again. Complacency is a state that has to be avoided, at all costs, and the ultimate learning here is that continuous improvement is an essential focus of any enterprise.
  • Failure to praise. Great talent needs to be nurtured and retained, in a manner that goes well beyond the paychecks and bonuses. These lessons come hard, after the loss of individuals who felt unappreciated and undervalued. We learn that humans need to hear these simple words: “You did a great job.”
  • Failure to trust. When first taking on a leadership role, there’s always a strong “pull” to be involved in every decision, or to want to “sign off” on literally every dollar spent or contract signed. Until we learn that trust is an essential part of great leadership, we are doomed to overwork and a huge misapplication of time and talent.
  • Failure to mediate. Every organization will have conflicts, whether it is person to person, or department to department. Successful leaders learn that stepping into the breach to resolve them, rather than standing back or ignoring them, can avoid bigger problems down the road and build influence throughout an organization.
  • Failure to fire. Nobody likes to fire anybody. It’s one of the toughest things a leader will ever do. But when you know in your gut it’s time to cut the cord, cut it. Don’t wait. Your gut will usually be right. The failures here are a lesson to the heart — it can’t get in the way of these decisions (but it certainly can come into play in the manner in which it is handled).