Facing Failure as a Leader
Business icon Anna Wintour is known for saying “Everyone should get sacked at least once.”
It’s an interesting statement. Here’s another way to frame it: At some point in our lives, each of us needs to be told “No” in a definitive way so we can learn from that experience.
Years ago I was told “No” after enduring an intense 2-year internship. “No, you’re not the guy.”
To this day it is the hardest news I have ever received. I failed to measure up; I fell short of the standards required.
Sometimes our failures are the result of human error or finite limitations. Sometimes they’re the result of inadequate training, foolishness, or sin. As a leader, failure feels especially shameful. By definition “leaders” ought to be “succeeders,” right? Who wants to follow the guy or girl who dropped the ball?
When it comes to handling failure as a leader, we must first remember that everyone fails. A leader who has never failed isn’t perfect; he’s inexperienced. Eventually failure visits us all.
As a leader, my gut reaction to my own failure is often anger, doubt, and discouragement. But the best leaders are the ones who use their failure as a platform for growth.
The book of Samuel is filled with many examples of leaders who fail over and over again, both intentionally and unintentionally. King Saul makes rash decisions to garner the approval of others. Eli the priest fails to confront the sin of his own sons. The entire Israelite army, including the highest commanders, fail to stand up to Goliath. As we study the book of Samuel, we are reminded repeatedly that we all fall short.
Secondly, we must recognize that God’s grace is sufficient to save, restore, and forgive. Moreover, God’s grace is magnified in light of our failure.
I think it’s easy to imagine that God chooses leaders the way schoolyard children pick teammates — as though He’s on the lookout for the biggest, strongest, and most gifted. When in reality, God often chooses just the opposite. In 1 Samuel 16, we see God pass over Jesse’s oldest and strongest sons, the most likely candidates for Kingship, in favor of a ruddy shepherd boy named David. It’s a crazy choice by worldly standards, but it’s right in line for the God who would later put a thorn in Paul’s flesh and say, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
We serve a God who chooses foolish things to confound the wise, and weak things to shame the strong (I Corinthians 1:27). As leaders, this is a humbling and tremendous encouragement! Our failure points to His perfection. His glory. His redemption. By God’s grace, your most recent failure may be a megaphone for His glory. God has used many of my past failures to encourage people in the midst of sin and failure. When failure arises, we have the opportunity to point others and even ourselves to the grace of Jesus Christ.
Lastly, we need to learn from our mistakes, sins, and failures. As a leader, my gut reaction to my own failure is often anger, doubt, and discouragement. But the best leaders are the ones who use their failure as a platform for growth. James 1 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds…If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all.” This is so helpful when it comes to leadership. One of the best ways to learn from failure is to ask God for wisdom and to seek out other godly believers for perspective.
As we learn how to handle failure through the book of Samuel, let’s begin by welcoming Jesus into our mess. Don’t let failure be a place where you cower in shame, explode in rage, or flee in fear. Let it be a place where you encounter the grace of the cross.
Written by Oviedo Pastor Clint Harrison; originally appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of Grace Magazine.