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Leadership and failure: You can't have one without the other

Article-Leadership and failure: You can't have one without the other

Key iconKey Points

  • Failure, according to an expert on leadership, is a necessary component not only to leadership, but also to progress.
  • The well-intentioned mistakes have a place in leadership, according to Dr. Farson.
  • To tolerate failure, you must be willing to admit your own mistakes.

"Courage" is one of the words often associated with great leaders, according to Richard Farson, Ph.D., psychologist and president of Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, La Jolla, Calif.

"If you ask people to identify the qualities of leadership, they will almost never talk about skills. Rather, they talk about remarkable qualities, such as vision or courage or humility," he says.

But courage is measured by one's willingness to take risks. And if one takes risks, one must be willing to fail.

So failure, according to Dr. Farson, whose article "The Failure Tolerant Leader," published in 2002, won the McKinsey award for the best Harvard Business Review article, is a necessary component not only to leadership, but also to progress.


Surgeons especially are taught not to make mistakes, not to fail. Even in corporate America, companies still penalize individuals for not only careless and reckless mistakes, but also those that are well intentioned.

It is the well-intentioned mistakes that have a place in leadership, he says.

"You have to make the distinction between a well-intended mistake that turns out to be a failed experiment of some sort and something that is just carelessness...," Dr. Farson says.


Innovation is necessary in medicine and cosmetic surgery, as it is in other fields.

"Innovation does not come except when you take risks. Risks always involve a certain percentage of failures — usually, quite a lot. So, the places that do the best are not only the ones that do not penalize failure but encourage it. It should be regarded as just another step on the path to success," Dr. Farson says.


But to tolerate failure, you must be willing to admit your own mistakes, according to Dr. Farson. Successful leaders will find, he says, that people do not turn against those who admit their mistakes, but rather they tend to embrace the honesty and are excited and enthused by the fact that someone so successful can and does make them.

While, it is especially hard for surgeons to grasp being tolerant of failure, risk-taking is built into what they do, according to Dr. Farson.

"Surgeons do not want to [take well-intentioned risks and] lose patients, but the surgeon knows full well that in the actual act of surgery, let alone in the diagnosis and planning, they have to take risks," he says.

To become less anxious and more courageous when it comes to accepting failure, surgeons and others first have to define failure, distinguishing it from what is "reckless."

And once they learn to accept failure in themselves and others then, they can turn their focus to other administrators and management to make an effort to become engaged with those they lead in order to build a failure-tolerant culture, according to Dr. Farson.

The engagement is nonjudgmental. In other words, it is not in the form of an evaluation, which is common in business today. Rather, it takes an analytical posture.

"When you can approach a worker or colleague and get interested in what they are doing, that does not need to be evaluative. That nonevaluative, nonjudgmental interaction (we call it involvement, engagement) is really rewarding to people," Dr. Farson says.

In promoting a failure-tolerant culture, the failure-tolerant leader eliminates as many evaluative procedures as can be eliminated.

"Praise does not make people feel good, and they feel like they have to work for the praise. You do not want people to work for praise; you want them to work for intrinsic rewards. That is to make the work satisfying enough to make them feel good about it," Dr. Farson says.

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