Failure’s Role in Leadership and Decision-Making


According to Edmondson (2011), people are taught at a young age that failure is bad. This aspect could be the reason why adults find it difficult to accept failure as a positive part of their daily engagements. However, O’Neil (2004) points out that understanding failure can help leaders in developing the capacity to learn from failure. The positive aspect of failure can only manifest if it is managed properly. This essay investigates the value that an individual can derive from a failure in leadership.

Building on Failure to Improve Leadership

Building a learning culture

One of the most outstanding ways that a leader can benefit from failure is through establishing a deeply rooted culture of learning within self and extending such to the entire workforce (Goodwin, 2006). A leader determines how people feel after a failure. The leader thus needs to ensure that he/she builds a culture that counters the habit of apportioning blame. This goal can be achieved by creating what Edmondson (2011) calls a ‘psychologically safe environment’ in which, employees feel safe to report failures when they occur. Emphasis should move from focusing on ‘who did what’ to analyzing and understanding what happened so that corrective measures can be taken.

Analyzing failure

O’Neil (2004) makes an important observation when he notes that understanding failure is a prerequisite to a successful transition from failure to success. Edmondson (2011) echoes the same sentiment by noting that once identified, failure has to be understood beyond the superficial level. Therefore, analyzing failure is a gateway to understanding it and consequently learning from it. After a failure occurs, a leader needs to consider it carefully to decipher the lessons that lie deep within it. Goodwin (2006) observes that the reason the prevalence of failure is that it has sentimental connotations, which make people shun its analysis. However, a leader must rise above sentimentality and analyze failure objectively to understand its causes, and thus take commensurate remedial measures.

Features of transformational leadership

Bass and Riggio (2006) posit that transformational leadership denotes a leadership style, which motivates individuals to develop an inner urge to change for the better. Leaders that embrace this approach exude four key characteristics, viz. “idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration” (Bass & Riggio, 2006, p.74).

Idealized influence requires the leader to act as the role model and set the desired example for others to emulate. On the other hand, inspirational motivation ensures that the leader’s motivational efforts focus on building a team spirit with a determination to achieve organizational goals (Jung & Avolio, 2000). Intellectual stimulation is also an important feature of transformational leaders in which the main idea is to make employees understand that the leader believes in their abilities. The leader then encourages them to be creative and innovative. Individual consideration as a characteristic of transformational leader takes the form of moving from team level down to the individual level and coaching each individual in a bid to help him/her attain his/her personal career goals (Jung & Avolio, 2000).

These four characteristics have a synergistic effect when they all combine. This assertion implies that in the face of failure, a transformational leader, who has developed all these characteristics, can achieve great success adequately in influencing employees towards the positive direction. The influence, motivation, stimulation, and affection that an employee may need in the face of failure are the principles upon which this style of leadership is anchored. No one is blamed; on the contrary, employees are guided towards the right direction and encouraged to be creative and work hard to attain personal goals, which are always in tandem with organizational goals.

Personal perspective on the influence of failure on leadership

The move towards embracing failure as a valuable part of everyday life is relatively new. Like many other people, I grew up knowing that failure is bad. However, with the attention that failure is receiving of late, it has become apparent that it can be bad and good depending on how it is handled. I strongly believe that failure is an integral part of life for there is no way one can go through his/her daily activities without coming encountering failure.

I have also come to believe that failure contributes to leadership effectiveness to a certain extent. This assertion holds as today, organizations that do not fail fast enough deliberately create conditions necessary for failure to facilitate learning. In addition to this aspect, people who are engaged in scientific research understand that failure is an integral part of their job as it is only through it that they learn. Leaders with this kind of attitude have a proven record of accomplishing exceptional performance.

Therefore, it is important for organizations that are confronted by failure to adhere to the best practices that have been outlined by those who have walked the path before them. Some of these practices include:

  1. Desisting from the blame game – Apportioning blame after failure is a common practice among those who have not learnt how to deal with it. No one can report a failure when s/he knows that it will lead to victimization. Therefore, the leadership should discourage the blame game at any cost.
  2. Detecting failure – Some cases of failure are obvious and easy to identify, but this is not always the case. If a failure is not addressed early enough, the inevitable result is disaster. Leaders thus need to be in a position to detect failure early enough and act accordingly.
  3. Promoting experimentation – Through experimentation, leaders can learn how to handle the real situations when they come because experiments have already given them a hint on how the real situation is likely to be.
  4. Developing a system thinking approach – A leader that develops this kind of thinking is capable of picturing the entire situation from the beginning to the end before the making a final decision. This aspect is important especially for crucial decisions.
  5. Resilience – The ability to pick oneself up and move is very important after failure. It determines if failure turns out to be beneficial to the leader and the organization or not. No matter how hard the blow is, the leader should urge the organization to move on.

Influence of failure on decision-making behavior

Based on the discussion on the relationship between failure and effective leadership, it is apparent that leaders who successfully transform failures into learning experiences differ from those who do not in terms of how the failures affect their decision-making behavior. It takes courage to face failure and analyze it to understand its underlying causes clearly before making any decision on how to move forward. When a leader does this and successfully overcomes failure, O’Neil (2004) notes that there comes an element of liberation, which underscores relief from the pressure of not wanting to fail because it is seen as a learning opportunity. Therefore, failure enhances the decision-making behavior of leaders who learn to handle it well, but it may also discourage those who are unable to learn from it.


Bass, B., & Riggio, R. (2006). Transformational Leadership. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Edmondson, A. C. (2011). Understanding failure: Strategies for learning from failure. Harvard Business Review, 11(4), 49-55.

Goodwin, N. (2006). Leadership and learning from failure. British Journal of Healthcare Management, 12(2), 41-43.

Jung, D., & Avolio, B. (2000). Opening the black box: an experimental investigation of the mediating effects of trust and value congruence on transformational and transactional leadership. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 21(8), 949-964.

O’Neil, R. (2004). The paradox of success. New York, NY: Penguin.

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