As a Leader, Learn from Failure

Ron McIntyre
3 min readMay 29, 2024

Failure is always less painful when you focus on extracting its maximum value. If you learn from each mistake, big and small, share those lessons, and periodically check that these processes are helping your organization move more efficiently in the right direction, the benefits you gain from failure will significantly increase. We refer to this as ‘return on failure’- the value you get from the lessons learned and the improvements made because of failure.

We like to talk about return on investment a lot in business, so let’s chat about trying to get a return on failure. Failures will happen. We don’t live in a perfect world. Empowering trust in the process of learning from failure provides you with the most effective way to find a workable solution. If you are unwilling to risk failure, you will become static and mediocre in your position or company, resulting in declining revenue and market position. For example, a product launch that fails to meet customer expectations can decrease sales and a loss of market share.

Remember, failure is not the end; it is a means to an end — it is the fastest and most effective way to a solution. You just must be willing to accept the challenge of experiencing it. Below are three steps that I recommend you follow to increase the return on failure personally and professionally:

Step 1: Learn from EVERY failure. This is never easy, but it is well worth the effort when done objectively and honestly. For instance, if a marketing campaign fails to generate the expected results, you can learn about the ineffective strategies used and improve them for the next campaign. There is no room for politics here because that will only cost you time and money. If you don’t do this regularly, go back to the most recent ten failed initiatives and look at the reasons for the failure. Dig deep, evaluate honestly, and record observations. Don’t hide any discoveries from yourself or the organization. Eliminate the blame given from your assessment. When I have done this in the past, I found the process failed more often than the people.

Step 2: Share the results: The true value of examining failures is not just in the lessons you learn but in the culture of collaboration and shared responsibility it fosters. When you build a review cycle where these lessons are shared in a broader conversation, the entire company can grow together, feeling more connected and responsible for each other’s success.

A leader’s worst mistake is to shoot the messenger and bury the bad news. Reflecting on the positives builds trust and clears the pathway for others to exit their comfort zones.

Step 3: Review any pattern of failure: Annually review the organization and ask whether your overall approach to failure is working. This is not about dwelling on past mistakes but identifying improvement areas and fostering a culture of continuous learning. Are you learning from every unsuccessful endeavor? Are you sharing those lessons across the organization? And are they helping you improve your strategy and execution? This review is a beacon of optimism, guiding you toward a brighter, more successful future.

Takeaway: Disciplines are required for any business, and learning from failure is among the most valuable. Incorporating it into your cultural practice will yield significant benefits.

Leadership Question: How is failure embraced and examined within your organization, or do you penalize it? Reflecting on this question can help you assess your organization’s culture and readiness to learn from failure. It can also prompt you to consider how you, as a leader, can influence this culture and encourage a more positive and productive approach to failure.

NOTES:

Keys: |Application: Leaders and Employees |Status: Stratactical |Duration: DNA Embed |Impact: High

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Ron McIntyre

Ron McIntyre is a Leadership Anthropologist, Author, and Consultant, who, in semi-retirement, is looking to help people who really want to make a difference.