The Failure Tolerant Leader

Growth means taking risks, which means risking failure. A failure-tolerant leader is both empowering and promotes growth in their organization.

Adapted from Harvard Business Review

It’s not enough to simply trust. When you surround yourself with good people bringing good ideas, there are going to be times you need to take calculated risks. Leaders need to be able to look at these opportunities and decide if a calculated risk is a risk they’re willing to take to move forward. Too many leaders get stuck in a trap where they’re afraid to get outside of their personal comfort zone, and that is not a place from which growth occurs for a leader, a team, or an organization. Know that people will make mistakes, and that mistakes are part of learning and development.

Everyone hates to fail. We assume, rationally or not, that we’ll suffer embarrassment and a loss of esteem and stature. During his years leading Monsanto, Robert Shapiro was struck by how terrified his employees were of failing. They had been trained to see an unsuccessful product or project as a personal rebuke. Shapiro tried hard to change that perception, knowing that it hindered the kind of creative thinking that fueled his business. He explained to his employees that every product and project was an experiment and that its backers failed only if their experiment was a halfhearted, careless effort with poor results. But a deliberate, well-thought-out effort that didn’t succeed was not only excusable but also desirable.

Such an approach to mistake-making is characteristic of people we call “failure-tolerant leaders”—executives who, through their words and actions, help people overcome their fear of failure and, in the process, create a culture of intelligent risk taking that leads to sustained innovation. These leaders don’t just accept failure; they encourage it.

Encouraging failure doesn’t mean abandoning supervision, quality control, or respect for sound practices. Just the opposite. Managing for failure requires executives to be more engaged, not less. Failure-tolerant leaders will analyze each failure carefully in order to improve next time.

Failure-tolerant leaders emphasize that a good idea is a good idea, whether it comes from Peter Drucker, Reader’s Digest, or an obnoxious coworker. This approach blunts the group’s natural disposition to squelch imaginative, though difficult, participants. Psychologist Michael Kahn suggests running meetings using what he calls “barn raising,” a model based on the way pioneers pitched in as a community to help one another construct outbuildings.

According to this model, rather than engage in one-upmanship, members are encouraged to listen carefully to each person’s idea, then add their thoughts to see if they can build that idea into a more valuable contribution. Such an atmosphere of exploration lets group members search diligently for value in ideas that might otherwise have been discarded. They also feel comfortable knowing that their suggestions will receive the same treatment. Employees who once felt inhibited suddenly feel free to express their thoughts, frequently contributing to the innovations that drive the company.

“The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”