The Upside of Failure

high5Today I’m sharing a guest post from author, Bill Treasurer. Find out how you can win a free copy of his newest book Leaders Open Doors at the end of the post.

Sara Blakely, the billionaire founder of SPANX and the inventor of women’s shapewear, learned a powerful life lesson from her father at a young age. As she tells it, at the end of every week, her dad would ask her and her younger brother a simple but important question: What have you failed at this week?

Sara says that question has stayed with her throughout her career. The question taught her that extending oneself to the point of occasional failure is important to growth and development. When people make mistakes at SPANX, especially when those mistakes key the business onto some new insight, Sara says she is never disappointed. Instead, she goes up to the mistake-maker and gives them a big high-five.

Not all leaders are as evolved as Sara when it comes to how they handle mistakes. When a mistake is made, they rub the mistake-maker’s nose in the mistake, as if the person were an errant dog in need of punishment. They seem to revel in the role of punisher, as if their power were derived from their ability to render harsh judgments.

More evolved leaders view mistakes and failure as powerful learning opportunities. A good failure can be the best evidence that a person is stretching, experimenting, innovating…and more importantly, not stagnating.

Smart leaders convert failures into opportunities.

A good example of how a failure can be transformed into an opportunity comes from the story of Steve, a project manager in a large construction company. Steve had enjoyed a successful career and was poised for a bright future. But when a project that he had led tanked and lost millions of dollars he suffered a crisis of confidence. There were a host of reasons the project went south, including misestimating the cost of the work and underbidding the project, performing the work in an entirely new market, and a fickle and unreasonable client. If anything, Steve’s leadership had prevented the project from being a bigger loss than it turned out to be. But he didn’t view it that way. He personalized the failure and he started to doubt himself. He became much more tentative and hesitant.

Fortunately, Steve worked for Wayne – a seasoned leader who understood the value of a good failure. Wayne had experienced enough failures along the way to know what Steve was going through. Wayne knew that after a failure it is tempting to scale back, become less visible, and take on smaller projects. Wayne also knew that if Steve allowed himself to shrink, he might get comfortable with a lower standard of achievement. Steve was capable and talented guy, despite the recent setback.

So what did Wayne do? He put Steve in charge of a large, complex project the company had just landed. The project was one of the largest in the company’s history, and a lot of money was at stake. Notice that what made Steve suited for the new opportunity was because of his recent failure and the need to overcome it. What Steve really needed was redemption—in the eyes of his company, and in his view of himself. Steve would never hold himself accountable to who he was capable of becoming as a professional if Wayne let him settle for becoming a smaller self. Leaders fail. It comes with the territory. Leading a big, hairy, complex job would be just what Steve needed to capitalize on the lessons he had learned from his prior failure.

Leaders fail. It comes with the territory.

How do you handle it when an employee loses a client, gets the data wrong, comes in over budget, or drops the ball in some other way? Do you explode? Do you mentally write the person off for good and hold the mistake against him or her forever more? Do you stew with resentment? What kind of example are you setting for others by the way you handle (or mishandle) failures and mistakes?

Bill Treasurer is the author of Leaders Open Doors, which focuses on how leaders create growth through opportunity. Bill is also the author of Courage Goes to Work, an international bestselling book that introduces the concept of courage-building. He is also the author of Courageous Leadership: A Program for Using Courage to Transform the Workplace, an off-the-shelf training toolkit that organizations can use to build workplace courage. Bill has led courage-building workshops for, among others, NASA, Accenture, CNN, PNC Bank, SPANX, Hugo Boss, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. To inquire about having Bill work with your organization, contact info@giantleapconsulting.com.


I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to give away 5 FREE iTunes codes for Bill’s book Leaders Open Doors. Be one of the first five readers to share what you’ve learned from a failure in the comment section below and win. Be sure to include your email address in your comment and act fast! The codes expire June 22nd. Let’s not let them go to waste.


Enter A Comment

JL   |   04 June 2013   |   Reply

Thank you. I really needed this article today. It has given me a different perspective on how to view failure as a mechanism for personal development. My most recent failure came with valuable feedback and now that I’m not sulking, I can see that clearly.

Bill Treasurer   |   06 June 2013   |   Reply

Thanks for your comment. Good feedback makes a good failure worthwhile. Sometimes it takes a little time for the fruits of the failure to pay off!

Oluwatobi Oyeyemi   |   04 June 2013   |   Reply

Great post. I think we all need to learn to see failure as an opportunity to learn and try new things and maintain a positive outlook. I’ve had experiences when I tried to blame others but this is such an eye opener. Thank you

Bill Treasurer   |   06 June 2013   |   Reply

Thanks Oluwatobi. Blaming others for a failure is very common…and I speak from lots of personal experience! Whenever I shrug off a failure I should “own”, I’m just postponing the learning. Thanks for your comment.

Hampton Hopkins   |   04 June 2013   |   Reply

Too often we tend to let our failures define us, particularly when it happens during moments of leadership. However, Bill is spot on when he suggests these are not moments of weakness in our leadership, these are moments of growth. I failed once in trying to build morale in my team and paid for it a company-wide engagement survey. I regrouped, called everyone together and led an open and honest discussion that changed my leadership style. It was eye-opening.

Bill Treasurer   |   06 June 2013   |   Reply

Thanks for the story Hampton. It reminds me of one of my favorite sayings, “Good judgment is the result of experience. And experience is the result of bad judgment”. 🙂

Brett   |   05 June 2013   |   Reply

Just like in strength training, I need balanced leadership training! I open our weekly leadership and team meetings by asking them to share a “good call” they had that week. Who did you inspire this week? What did the individual learn from your conversation?

I have not asked them about the mistakes they made and what they learned from them. While we discuss frustrations and how others failed, I have failed to turn it around to focus on the people in the room. We can’t change others, but we can change ourselves.

Personally, I am hard on myself when I fail or make a mistake that affects others. Failure has been an indicator of someone who did not do their job completely.

As I learn to grow from my failures (and not take it personal), I can reproduce that characteristic by leading my team to grow from their failure.

Bill Treasurer   |   06 June 2013   |   Reply

Thanks for the good reflection Brett. Good relationships are built on a foundation of trust. And trust takes a willingness to be vulnerable with one another. Sharing failures openly with one another takes more vulnerability, and therefore builds more trust, than sharing successes. Thanks!

Lori   |   05 June 2013   |   Reply

I learned this exact lesson from a failure. I definitely took it out on myself at first, but at some point I realized that beating myself up was helping no one – least of all me! I now try very hard to mentor colleagues to look forward, not back, in the face of failure. How can I make it “right?” Once you feel like you have “redeemed” yourself for the error, you reflect on your lessons learned, and share them too!

Bill Treasurer   |   06 June 2013   |   Reply

Thanks Lori. Failure, in the way you describe, can be a great motivator. Striving to redeem ourselves after a good failure provides wonderful internal fuel to keep on moving forward. And forward movement is the very definition of progress!

Keith   |   06 June 2013   |   Reply

J K Rowling put it very well in her 2008 Harvard Commencement Speech – “It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously you might as well have not lived at all in which case you fail by default.” Her rather moving speech can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHGqp8lz36c

I deal a lot with successful people who are classic ‘Imposters’ and who fail to achieve their true potential due to fear of failure. I explain there are two ways to overcome fear of failure. The first is to strive harder – which simply validates the fear and makes it worse. The second is to put the word ‘fantastic’ in front of ‘failure’. When people describe themselves as ‘fantastic failures’ they inevitably start smiling at the craziness of the thought. The goal is to detoxify the word failure. Doesn’t always work but I have seen some remarkable turn-arounds.

Susan Mazza   |   15 June 2013   |   Reply

Love the reframing (and the shift of mood) you create by adding the word “fantastic” brings to failure. I’ll be borrowing that! Thanks for sharing this perspective and the link to JK Rowling’s speech.

Bill Treasurer   |   15 June 2013   |   Reply


I love “Fantastic Failure.” It takes the stigma out of failure. Good comment!

Sharon FultonBevers   |   07 June 2013   |   Reply

When I was ill, recovering from a major operation, the small company I worked for made my position redundant. I should have seen it coming, but it was an act in a long line of bullying to make me want to leave by the business owner, who had a reputation of bullying to get people to leave. I was devastated by this, exacerbated by not being well. Then the recession hit and I couldn’t find work in my specialist field. 18 months of not finding work, and having to cash up retirement funds was even more difficult. In the end I managed to find a job that meant I had to work six hours drive from my home and family.
In this job I took some study and it changed my perspective and skillset. When the contract finished, I found a job that looked like a small role, but I changed it into something much bigger, with some great influence that’s changed the culture. Now I’m not scared of the future. Although that contract came to a natural end I’m choosing not to be afraid, and to pursue other contracts which have more leadership potential.

Susan Mazza   |   15 June 2013   |   Reply

Thanks so much for sharing your story of triumph over adversity Sharon. May you continue to create opportunities that empower you!

Bill Treasurer   |   15 June 2013   |   Reply

Thanks for the post Sharon. In my second book, Courage Goes to Work, I explain that one of the forms that a courageous act can take is to persist through suffering. Taken from that vantage point, your story of persistence is courageous indeed!

Cheryl Steffins   |   07 July 2013   |   Reply

I am inspired to push on in my chosen path because I’ve learned here that if I’m not regularly failing in a big way then I’m not stepping up to the plate and swinging in a big way! I must take risks and occasionally fail if I am to succeed!
My email address is cherylsteffins@yahoo.com