Want to be a Leader?

Failure May be your First Step

I went to a networking event and there were several panelists speaking about their beautiful careers. At the end of the talk, a young woman asked a really interesting question:

“How did you know you were ready to be a leader?”

The panelists each gave lovely answers about their career paths and the steps that led to their successes. I just didn’t feel right about the answers so I stood up and asked if I could add something. I was really trying to be nice, but it might have come across a little like the crone in that dream sequence of the Princess Bride. You know the part where Prince Humperdinck says “I present to you your queen. Queen Buttercup!” Everyone is silent and then the old lady shouts “Boo! Boo!”

Except I wasn’t shouting “Boo!”. I’m was saying “You have to fail.” I wasn’t shouting or anything, but I was standing to make sure I had the floor. I explained the importance of failure to them, as I will explain here.

One of the core things leaders have to do, is deal with problems. You can either prevent them from happening (good luck), or expediently solve them. People often get chosen to be the next leader after someone important has seen them:

  • Keep their cool in a crisis;
  • Course correct really quickly;
  • Spin a bad situation into a win;
  • Notice early when things are going downhill; and/or
  • Recover from a setback.

If any of these things happened, it means your project did not go as planned. Some might think that means there was poor project planning. Maybe those critics have a crystal ball that helps them predict the future, or they aren’t trying very hard to get the project done quickly. Truthfully, projects rarely go exactly as planned which is a big part of why we need to manage them.

Problems happen. Not all problems can be solved. Sometimes they keep us up at night. Sometimes our boss doesn’t like how we handle them. Sometimes they are completely out of our control. Sometimes we fail in our efforts to fix them. Sometimes we become the scapegoat for them. Sometimes they get us fired.

Every problem you face will help inform you for the next one. Every problem that causes you suffering will give you more compassion for others when they go through similar ones.

In my opinion, you know you are ready to lead when you can fail gracefully and still know, without a doubt, that you are amazing at what you do. Every failure makes you more and more resilient. You get better at handling the problems without getting rattled. You are able to give others examples of success strategies. You can support colleagues and show them they are capable of surviving their struggles. You are living proof that failure can make us great.


Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Colin Powell


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