Monday, October 8, 2012

Mistakes Leaders Make, No. 3: Fear of Failing

I believe that all human beings, at some point in their lives, fear the idea of failing at something.  Whether it is studying for a test, competing in a sporting event, or just being in a situation that exposes a weakness that you may have desired to cover up, for fear of being recognized a “failure” or a person that cannot be trusted with responsibility or position. Unfortunately, it is the result of being brought up in this American culture of competition, achievement, and success or nothing, that this fear of failure has prevailed for so long, in so many lives. 

Thanks to movements such as “No Child Left Behind” (or else),  and “common core” (learn it or lose it), that we are raising another unfortunate group of children that “failing” is bad. Or, being consigned to the “gallows” of AIS (academic intervention services) or “extra help” is the same as “achieve, achieve, achieve or BE A FAILURE”!

In a blog by Peter Sims (2012) for and the Harvard Business Review, much of the training and development executive business leadership is focused on a success-driven society that deters people from even considering failure as an option in the work place. 

“Most of us in business, if we need to discover how to do something new, use PowerPoint or Excel spreadsheets to rationalize our approach. This is what I call "the illusion of rationality." Whether motivated by a lack of insight arrogance, or stupidity, the illusion of rationality is a waste of time and resources — yet one that keeps a lot of people employed in management...” (Sims, 2012,

He mentions that this culture that fear risk-taking for fear of failing is a result of the way schools have encultured this idea in actions and words:

“If you're an MBA-trained manager or executive, the odds are you were never, at any point in your educational or professional career given permission to fail, even on a "little bet." Your parents wanted you to achieve, achieve, achieve — in sports, the classroom, and scouting or work. Your teachers penalized you for having the "wrong" answers, or knocked your grades down if you were imperfect, according to however your adult figures defined perfection.” (Sims, 2012, CEO)

So, for part 3 of this series “The Mistake Leaders Make”, fearing failure constrains the possibility of taking a chance, risking or being creative. Jeffery Immelt, CEO of GE insists on an organizational culture where failure is a chance to be adaptive, and creative. That every situation is filled with uncertainty and unknowns, and as long as people are willing to accept that premise, new information and new results are possible.

There are plenty of opportunities for school leaders to resist the “fear of failure” and welcome the opportunity to risk, adapt, and be creative. In issues of school finance, curriculum development, union negotiations, and student discipline, creativity is the objective, not failing. 

Thomas Edison is attributed with the following phrase: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” But, I rather like another quote he is to have said that will conclude this blog:

“Many of life's failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

Sims, P. (October 5, 2012). The No. 1 Enemy of Creativity: Fear of Failure. [BLOG] CEO.COM. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved October 8, 2012 at