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Good leaders know the art of successful failure

29 November 2019

Christians can find freedom from performance anxiety by embracing vulnerability and weakness, says Emma Ineson

CONSIDER how many successes in science, the arts, business, sport, and technology come riding on the back of years and years of practice, hard graft, trying, failing, and trying again.

In 2018, the England football team had a period of (relative) success in the FIFA World Cup, reaching the semi-finals for the first time since 1990. Much was written about the leadership style of the England manager, Gareth Southgate, who, it was said, drew on the experience of his own crucial missed penalty in the 1996 World Cup to encourage his young squad to be unafraid of getting it wrong and, therefore, to be willing to take risks.

He had missed that penalty and still ended up as England manager, he said; so they, too, could risk making mistakes without fear that it would blight their prospects. This would lead to more exciting and, ultimately, successful play. The phrase “failing forwards” has been coined to describe this kind of learning from mistakes which leads to success.

It is all too easy to be simplistic about such things, of course. Sometimes, failure is deeply harmful and it is by no means clear that any subsequent successes are worth it. Not all failure is good. The ends do not always justify the means, and we need to think carefully about what we mean by failure. Some failure destroys lives.

Perhaps it is better to say that there are different kinds of failure and different kinds of potential for learning from them. Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, in her fascinating book about developing “psychological safety” in the workplace, writes of the need to encourage the admission of failure in order to release future fearless experimentation and risk-taking, which is the root of innovation.

She acknowledges, however, that not all failure is to be encouraged or welcomed, and that failure can be ranked on a scale from “vital to get it right” (medical procedures, for example) to “necessary to find out new things” (pushing the boundaries of innovation). She suggests a basic typology of failure types, from preventable failure (deviations from known processes that produce unwanted outcomes), to intelligent failure (novel forays into new territory leading to new outcomes). She concludes: “Successful failure is an art. It helps if you can fail at the right time and for the right reasons.”

SUCCESSFUL failure is an essential component of successful leadership, which involves an accompanying willingness to acknowledge and embrace vulnerability and weakness. Hence, St Paul can state: “On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.”

More recently, Brené Brown described the particular benefits of acknowledging vulnerability and failure in the encouragement of innovation:

There is nothing more uncertain than the creative process and there is absolutely no innovation without failure. Show me a culture in which vulnerability is framed as a weakness and I’ll show you a culture struggling to come up with fresh ideas and new perspectives.

The report of the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England on senior leadership in the Church was published as something of a counter to other papers that were forthcoming at the time, which spoke in rather hyperbolic terms about the need for success and the encouragement of “talent” in the Church; it posed similar questions about the place of failure in leadership: “We will certainly not encourage real improvisation and experimentation if we have generated an atmosphere of performance anxiety.”

Similarly, Gregory Jones and Kevin Armstrong, in their book on parish ministry Resurrecting Excellence, highlight the benefit for both leader and followers of recognising and embracing weakness and failure: “When we can genuinely acknowledge failure, and the vulnerability that goes with it, then we have the capacity to learn from the failure in a way that empowers both our leadership and the institution.”

For Jones and Armstrong, weakness coupled with strength is one of the great paradoxes (they call them “intersections”) of the Christian faith and, therefore, of successful ministry and leadership.

CHRISTIANS — for whom success and glory walk hand in hand with failure and death — are ideally placed to bring to leadership a healthy way of living well with the pressures and demands of our success-obsessed culture.

We know that apparent failure can be the door to new opportunity, and power is made perfect in weakness. We know that, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it will not bear fruit. We know instinctively that there are different types of success and failure: apparent failure is often the pathway to success, and doing things in a godly way might not always look successful to the untrained eye. That can bring great freedom to “dare greatly”, to risk, to grow.

Dr Emma Ineson is the Bishop of Penrith.

This is an edited extract from her book Ambition: What Jesus said about power, success, and counting stuff, published by SPCK at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9).

Listen to an interview with Dr Ineson on the Church Times Podcast.

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