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Dan's Insights and Inspirations for Empowered Leadership

Fail-Proofing Your Leadership

Failure is a frequently misunderstood concept in leadership. It’s common to think that those who have succeeded in leading others have, by definition, avoided failure. But, that's just not reality. For men and women who have made significant strides as leaders, failure isn’t avoided. Failure is re-interpreted.  

Thomas Watson was the man most responsible for the growth of IBM. Under his leadership from 1914 to 1956, the iconic company became an internationally recognized brand. At the height of his influence, Watson said "The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”  

In the 21st Century, more leaders have understood the truth of that statement. No one can have an unending string of wins. So, instead of chasing perfection, it's wiser to chase progress and growth. The dreaded "F" word is, in fact, a prerequisite to progress.

But knowing failure is a key to progress, and harnessing failure to drive progress are two different things. Failure still stings. There's no cure for that. But, the best leaders have a skill that helps them maximize the growth that failure can bring. 


That's right. Storytelling. 

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Leaders are, by default, storytellers. They tell stories of potential and possibility. They help people interpret the past and move forward. But the most important story that leaders tell is the one they tell themselves. 

Whether you realize it or not, you have a story you tell yourself. It’s a story about how far you can go in life, or how past events will affect your future results. Authentic Leaders have the pen in their hand and actively write their own story. By telling the right story about failure and success, they develop the confidence to authentically lead. More specifically, the way they understand their past challenges has the power to shape their future success. 

David and Goliath

The story of David and Goliath is the classic underdog story, and an example of the how storytelling enables you to face potential failure.  

David was an unknown teenager in Israel when he traveled to visit his older brothers on the front lines of a battle between the Israelites and the Philistines. The Israelite army was camped across a valley from the Philistine army but had not advanced for days. The Philistines sent their towering giant, Goliath, forward to issue an extraordinary challenge. Israel was to choose their best warrior to fight Goliath; if the Israelite killed Goliath, the Philistines would surrender; if Goliath killed the warrior, the Israelites would surrender. 

Day after day Goliath taunted Israel from across the valley. With the fate of the entire nation on the line, Israel didn’t have a warrior with the courage to accept the challenge. 

On the day David arrived in the camp, Goliath had shouted another challenge. But where David’s brothers and the rest of the Israelite army lacked the courage to confront the giant, David was instantly infuriated. In a moment, he resolved to fight Goliath. 

Grabbing a few stones and his sling, without regard for the high probably of failure, David approached the giant with confidence. On his first shot, David hit Goliath in the forehead, effectively killing him. 

That’s a familiar story to many. The relevant question you need to ask is this, “What would give a teenager, with zero military experience, more courage than the most seasoned warriors in Israel? Failure seemed inevitable. So where did he get the confidence to step on the battlefield and face Goliath?” His courage came from how he authored his own story. 

David Wrote His Story

Before David met Goliath, he was shaped by a crucible. A crucible is as a situation where an individual endures a severe, often painful, series of challenges that leads to either the creation of a newfound sense of self or a significant loss of self-confidence. Crucibles are always a turning point in life, and never leave you the same. As David was attempting to gain permission to fight Goliath, he retold the story of his crucible to Saul, the king of Israel.

David said to Saul, “Your servant was tending his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went out after him and attacked him, and rescued it from his mouth; and when he rose up against me, I seized him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, since he has taunted the armies of the living God.

Essentially David is saying, “I'm not afraid of failure I’ve been challenged before, and I’m better and stronger because of it. I know who I am. I know my strengths, and I know I’m good enough. I beat the lion, and I beat the bear. And I’ll beat this too.”

David didn't have to tell that version of the story. His fight with the lion and the bear could have made him insecure about fighting again. He experienced a real fight with a wild animal and no doubt got roughed up. Others might have interpreted his experience as failure! Maybe David broke a bone or two. Maybe he bore scars from the fight for the rest of his life. We don’t know how much David suffered in the fight. So, we can understand how he might have otherwise seen the encounter as a failure of judgement. He barely escaped with his life. He could have kicked himself for carelessly letting his sheep roam close to wild animals—not just once, but twice! 

David decided not to dwell on the difficulties. Instead, he authored his own story and chose to focus on the growth he experienced and the victory he achieved. He was someone who legitimately killed a lion and a bear. No one could take that confidence from him. This is a critical point. David did not simply defeat the lion and the bear. He interpreted and internalized past events in a way that positioned him for future victory. 

Enduring failure has a way of giving us a courage to look challenges in the eye. David did not ask for a test. He didn’t invite the lion or the bear into his life. But he faced the ordeal head on, and that posture of offense led him to eventually triumph. When the fateful moment came to fight Goliath, David simply remembered his own story. His past predicament supplied remarkable confidence and helped him see himself as someone who could beat the odds. 

Authoring Your Own Story

In your leadership, you will experience failure. Some days, things just won't go right. The story you tell yourself about your situation will help you learn from failure without thinking you are a failure. The story you tell about your situation can carry more significance and effect than the situation itself. Learning the right lesson from a failure can keep you moving forward, despite the most challenging moments.