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5 Ways Leaders Can Fail Forward

By Maxwell Leadership | September 5, 2023
5 Ways Leaders Can Fail Forward

This blog post has been adapted from Dr. John Maxwell’s personal productivity resource, The Self-Aware Leader. John Maxwell has been one of the world’s foremost leadership and personal growth experts for more than 40 years, and this guidebook for success planning contains invaluable insights. You can pick up a copy here.

Before the days of the modern pencil, writers and artists would use moist balls of bread to remove their errors. These early erasers got the job done, but they had their downsides. To realize their vision, creative and bookish types had to put up with mold, bugs, and other disgusting drawbacks.

But that was all until one day in the 1770s when British engineer Edward Nairne made a mistake. Upon reaching for a piece of rubber instead of his bread, he discovered a better way – and made a great example – for how people can manage their mistakes.

Leveraging Mistakes for Maximum Benefit

Everyone makes mistakes – large and small. To get maximum attention, make a big mistake. To cause maximum damage, fail to admit it! That will keep you from leadership development. When it comes to defining failure or success, it’s not about the number of mistakes you make; it’s the number of times you make the same mistake. If you want to learn to fail successfully and handle the mistakes you do make with maximum profit, then you need to do the following five things:


The first step toward anticipating mistakes and learning from the ones we do make is to take a realistic look at ourselves and admit our weaknesses. You can’t improve as a leader if you’re too busy trying to pretend you’re perfect.

Former U.S. Navy captain Michael Abrashoff writes in his book It’s Your Ship, “Whenever I could not get the results I wanted, I swallowed my temper and turned inward to see if I was part of the problem. I asked myself three questions: Did I clearly articulate the goals? Did I give people enough time and resources to accomplish the task? Did I give them enough training? I discovered that 90 percent of the time, I was at least as much a part of the problem as my people were.” Admitting our failures and taking responsibility for them will allow us to go to the next step.


Psychologist Joyce Brothers asserts, “The person interested in success has to learn to view failure as a healthy, inevitable part of the process of getting to the top.” Nothing is perfect in this life – and that includes you! The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can start leveraging our mistakes for our personal growth.

Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana remarked, “As if screwing up on the field in front of millions of TV viewers wasn’t enough, the Monday after every game I got to relive my mistakes – over and over again, in slow motion and with commentary from the coaches! Even when we won, we always took time to review our mistakes. When you’re faced to confront your mistakes that often, you learn not to take your failures so personally. I learned to fail fast, learn from my mistakes, and move on. Why beat yourself up about it? Just do better next time.”

Not everyone is so willing to accept their mistakes. Because Montana was, he became one of the best players in the history of the NFL. His leadership and ability to handle adversity earned him the nickname “Joe Cool.” Those qualities also helped him to win four Super Bowls and earn the title of Super Bowl MVP three times. If you want to reach your potential as a leader, accept that mistakes are the price of progress.


There are two common approaches people have to failure. While one person hesitates and avoids mistakes because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes, learning from them, and becoming superior. People can either run from mistakes and hurt themselves, or learn from them and help themselves. People who try to avoid failure at all costs never learn and end up repeating the same mistakes over and over again. But those who are willing to learn from their failures never have to repeat them again.

As author William Saroyan observed, “Good people are good because they have come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success.” Leaders need to take their cue from scientists: in science, mistakes always precede the discovery of truth.


Some people expect nothing but trouble. They are pessimistic, so they don’t bother to look for anything good. Others have a natural tendency to assume that everything is good. But either of these kinds of thinking can hurt a leader. Elizabeth Elliot, author of All That Was Ever Ours, points out, “‘All generalizations are false including this one,’ yet we keep making them. We create images – graven ones that can’t be change; we dismiss or accept people, products, programs, and propaganda according to the labels they come under; we know a little about something, and we treat it like we know everything.” Leaders need to be more discerning than that.

It is easy to make decisions based on what we know. But there are always things we don’t know. It is easy to choose a direction based on what we see. But what about what we don’t see? Reading between the lines is essential for effective leadership. We are most likely to do this when we ask the question, “What are we missing?” This question causes everyone to stop and think. Many people can see what’s obvious. It’s much more difficult to determine what isn’t there. Asking tough questions causes people to think differently. Not asking questions is to assume that a project is potentially perfect and that if it’s handled with care, there will be no problems. That’s simply not reality.


When leaders don’t get input from others on their team, it can lead to disaster. Abrashoff touches on this problem in It’s Your Ship. He writes,

The moment I heard about [the tragic sinking of a Japanese fishing boat off Honolulu by the submarine USS Greeneville], I was reminded that, as is often the case with accidents, someone senses possible danger but doesn’t necessarily speak up. As the Greeneville investigation unfolded, I read in a New York Times article that the submarine’s crew ‘respected the commanding officer too much to question his judgment.’ If that’s respect, then I want none of it… History records countless incidents in which ship captains or organization managers permitted a climate of intimidation to pervade the workplace, silencing subordinates whose warnings could have prevented disaster. Even when the reluctance to speak up stems from admiration… a climate to question decisions must be created in order to foster double-checking.

Many good minds working together are always better than one working alone.

What’s the single greatest obstacle leaders face in their development, effectiveness, and advancement?

Lack of self-awareness! Dr. John C. Maxwell’s The Self-Aware Leader will help any leader become more self-aware, focused, and confident. Get the book today!

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