Is failure really ok, or just for others?

Apr 18, 2024

Have you ever thought as a leader that failure is ok for others but not for yourself?

When others make a mistake, no matter how dire, most of us respond by going into solution mode, offering reassurance that it’s all figure-out-able, don’t worry we can move on from here.

But if the failure is yours, what is your own internal dialogue?  I bet it’s not nearly as kind.


The idea of failure is typically laden with negative connotations, yet it is an inevitable part of growth and learning. How, then, can we as leaders not only become comfortable with failure but also model this to our teams?

First it’s important to remember that leadership, at its core, involves making decisions with the best information available at the time. Not all decisions will lead to success. Failure, in this context, is not a reflection of incompetence, but a natural outcome of the trial-and-error process that goes hand in hand with leadership. Recognising that it won’t always go well and definitely not the first time can help remove the stigma associated with failure.

Shifting the perception of failure from a negative outcome to a valuable learning opportunity requires a deliberate change in mindset. Here’s how to get started on reframing how you view and respond to failure both for you as the leader and for your team.


We all have setbacks, are you talking about them?

Without failure we limit our learning.  Create a team culture where discussing failures through the lens of learning is as normal as celebrating successes. Encourage your team members to share their experiences and what they’ve learned from them. This focus on learning enriches the collective knowledge of your team.

As a leader, openly share your own failures and the lessons learned. When your team sees you acknowledging and learning from your mistakes, it sets a powerful example that it's okay to fail as long as it leads to growth and understanding.

Change the Narrative

The language we use when discussing outcomes can profoundly impact how they are perceived. If failures are marked by negative language such as "disaster" or "stuff-up,"  start by changing the narrative to terms like "learning" or "growth opportunity." This linguistic shift helps create a more positive framework for understanding what failure really is: a part of the learning process.

Tap Into Your Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck's concept of a "growth mindset" is required here. In a growth mindset, skills and intelligence can be developed through hard work, good strategies, and input from others. When failures occur, they are not seen as a reflection of one's abilities but as opportunities to grow. As a leader, encourage this mindset by praising effort and strategy over outcomes. Give recognition for behaviours such as overcoming challenges, perseverance and resilience even if initial outcomes don't meet expectations.

Shift the focus from what went wrong to what did we learn

Whenever a project or initiative doesn’t go as planned, ask questions like, “What can we do differently next time?” or “What did this experience teach us?” This helps build a mindset where failure is not a roadblock but a steppingstone.

Make Time to Capture Learnings

Regular debriefing sessions after projects—regardless of their success or failure—can be instrumental in creating a culture of learning. Use these sessions to analyse what happened, identify factors that led to the failure, and discuss openly what everyone involved can take away from the experience.

Response Matters

When failures occur, focus on supporting your team members rather than assigning blame. This means standing with your team, showing empathy, and focusing on emotional as well as professional support. A leader’s response to failure can either build or erode resilience.  By showing that setbacks are natural and manageable, you help your team maintain confidence and motivation.


Learning to embrace and learn from failure is not just about personal growth; it's about leading by example and setting the tone for your entire team. By reframing failure as a necessary ingredient for learning and success, you can enhance your own leadership skills and create a resilient, team culture. As a leader, your role in modeling this perspective is crucial. Remember, every great success often comes from lessons learned through multiple failures. Embrace them, learn from them, and lead the way forward.

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