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When failure is the path of successful leadership

One of us met recently with the new CEO of a large company who was profiling his team of direct reports. As the CEO talked with us, he focused on the skills and background of each direct report. Impressed with the diversity of the group, we asked “Is there anything that everyone on your team has in common?”

He nodded. “At one point or another, each one of us has been fired.”

The CEO said this proudly. To him, being fired was a badge of merit (Dotlich, Noel & Walker – Learning for Leadership: Failure as a Second Chance in Business Leadership – p. 478).

I read this essay by Dotlich, Noel and Walker some time back as part of my doctoral studies in leadership. I have never been able to forget this quote. Did you notice that last sentence? To this CEO, he bragged about the fact that he and all of his senior execs had been fired somewhere along the line?

When I was fired from a job years in college, I wanted to stick my head in the sand and pretend it never happened. I tried to forget that experience, not make it a talking point.

Instead of denying it happened, lying about it or pointing fingers at others (cause, obviously it was someone else’s fault!), the successful leader finds a way to grow through it. What flaws of mine did this reveal? What could I have done differently? What part did I play in getting myself to this point?

As a leader, you are going to fail sometimes. You may even be terminated. Are you going to play the blame game, or are you going to look inward with a goal of growing personally and professionally? To this CEO, “being fired was a badge of merit” because each member of his executive team had grown through that experience. Their leadership since had been shaped and reshaped by experiencing failure. How will you respond when it happens to you?

Interact: How have you grown as a leader through a past failure?


3 Responses

  1. Steve,

    Great post and excellent point about failure. Some of the biggest train wrecks I’ve seen within the business world are with leaders who have moved from success to success without experiencing failure. Often they were moved too quickly and failure was right around the corner, but they were promoted before being allowed to live with their mistakes. Success feels wonderful but is a lousy teacher.

    Without failure we never question our path, investigate our methods, or understand the power of support from others. Thanks for pointing that out in your post.

    Great stuff,


    • “Success feels wonderful but it is a lousy teacher.” That is a great comment. I have a friend whose cousin is a sports coach and has often told his players that 5-5 is the perfect season because they get to learn how to win and how to lose.

  2. I really want to work on my leadership skills and this might really help. Thank you for posting this.

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