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Leadership lessons in how to fail well

4 min read


I crashed my car recently. It was about 8 a.m. I was in a rush (what else is new?) to get to a meeting for a nonprofit I belong to. I learned how to drive in Thailand, so I’m rather proud of my driving reflexes — even pride myself on holding my own with the cab drivers in New York City. The car in front of me stopped. Unfortunately I didn’t.

The good news is that I emerged totally functional (or at least no more dysfunctional than usual). The other piece of good news is that the experience taught me some lessons on how to fail well. It taught me that we need to think about failure as a process we go through rather than an event to avoid at all costs.

  1. My first response: “You idiot.” Whenever a failure happens, our first response is to look for someone else to blame. In this case, it was the driver of the large white truck who decided to stop before making the turn that should be glided through (in my opinion). The driver had absolutely no concern for whether it would be convenient for me to make the stop. Clearly not a very good driver.
  2. My second response: “Me idiot.” My second response came soon after the first. I vaguely remembered that I’m actually supposed to keep a safe distance and that cars are supposed to stop before making a turn. My inner critic showed up in full force: “What an idiot. I never plan enough time. I always run late. It’s a miracle that I get anywhere on time. It’s a miracle I manage to hold my life together. Wait, I’m not even sure I manage to do that.” It’s a good thing that I was in this mode when I came out of the car. I apologized profusely which seemed to calm down the woman driving the truck (I think she actually felt sorry for me given the beating I was getting from my inner critic). We examined the damage, exchanged insurance information and went on our way.
  3. My third response: “It’s OK. I’m OK.” As I drove onward, bravely facing the continued tirade of the inner critic, something in me melted. Not given to emotion easily, I curiously found myself crying. Crying from the frustration of having failed to stop. Crying for the hurt inflicted by the inner critic. Crying for trying so hard to be everywhere, and be everything to everyone. I decided to stop the car (I did remember to carefully signal the stop). I decided to just be kind to myself. I didn’t need to blame me. I didn’t need to blame anyone else. I just needed to get over the disappointment of the failure by being compassionate to myself. I let myself cry. I gave myself a hug. I felt a lot better. Releasing the emotion helped me move to the next stage.
  4. My fourth response: “What is the lesson?” The lessons for me were twofold. First, I need to slow down. Literally and figuratively. The lesson was about being more mindful of what I commit to. It was about learning to say “no,” while introspecting about why I don’t say “no” to all the demands on my time. Second learning: failures happen. If we get stuck in the emotions of blaming others or ourselves, we really don’t learn the lessons from our failures.

I learned that failure happens. As leaders, our job is not to avoid it, cover it up, or lose confidence over it. Our job as leaders is to learn how to fail well. Next time we experience failure, I hope that each of us will pause to navigate the failure process, practice compassion, learn the lessons and move forward, wiser from the failure.

Henna Inam is CEO of Transformational Leadership Inc., a company focused on helping women achieve their potential to be transformational leaders. As a former C-suite executive with Fortune 500 companies, her passion is to help leaders be successful, deeply engaged, and create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth and engagement. Connect @hennainam on Twitter and at her blog.