Leaders can let you fail and not let you be a failure

This is a quote from the former commander of U.S. and International forces in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal, who said it in his 2011 TED Talk on leadership.

Failure is inevitable, but these days the word failure is celebrated often as a goal that you should achieve, especially in the startup and design communities. We’ve seen no shortage of talks and workshops on failure. In the recent Failure_x_Design conference (formerly known as Harvard_x_Design), one of the “failed” speakers talked about his failure without talking about the inevitable success that ensued — because he was still trying to figure out how to get out of the slump. He failed; but judging by the topics of conversations, he wasn’t celebrated.

Failure sucks. The more you invest in something risky, the more likely that you will feel like a failure if you fail. We know this already, so what’s new? We throw around the phrase “embracing failure” like it’s something we should set out to achieve. But you don’t know what failure tastes like until you’ve failed.

Where the mindset of embracing failure can do the most magic is post failure. Don’t sink further resources into something that you don’t think will work. Accept that you’ve failed and carefully examine the factors that led to the failure. Reframe it as a stepping stone towards something greater because we are physiologically wired to learn from our mistakes. When you feel down and question your own abilities, here’s something from the Bible that you might find helpful for restoring faith in yourself.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. — Romans 8:18

I’ve enjoyed a few successes trying to introduce new practices or ideas at work. I’ve also suffered from more than my fair share of failed attempts. I chose the word suffer precisely because I felt guilty for failing to meet people’s expectations of me. But instead of fueling the guilt, my manager and people around me praised me for my pursuits.

It might seem cliche, but great leaders place their people at the top of their mind. It’s easy to talk about giving people the permission to fail; but practicing what you preach is much harder than it might seem. When you are the one held accountable for sinking resources into failed endeavors, and you feel your emotions gnawing on the inside of your gut, it takes tremendous discipline to keep putting your people — their welfare, security, and esteem — ahead of your own.

Leaders are not self-appointed; they are endorsed by the people who choose to follow them. If you want to be a leader, put others first.

“Leaders can let you fail and not let you be a failure.”
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