Like the rest of us this week, I was shocked at the recent high level resignations of CIA Chief General Petraeus and in-coming CEO of Lockheed Martin, Chris Kubasik due to sex scandals.  How could these intelligent and rational men put their reputations and careers at risk? How could they let themselves fail so publicly?  Then an interesting incident happened to me yesterday and it gave me greater perspective on failure.  It made me realize that giving ourselves (and others, even leaders and heroes) permission to fail is an important leadership practice.

As an executive coach it’s always interesting to notice when I don’t practice what I preach.  Here’s what happened yesterday. I was talking with a friend about a project I am working on.  I mentioned how I had hired someone to help me with this project and he suddenly got quite angry. Why hadn’t I considered hiring him? This was yet another example of how I was disloyal as a friend.  You see, this had happened one time before and he had the same reaction then.

The truth of the matter was that I had assumed he wouldn’t even be interested.

How did I react? An emotionally intelligent executive coach who preaches this all day would have put into action the 3-step process I preach: 1) Listened for the underlying emotion he was feeling, 2) Acknowledged the emotion “I get that you’re feeling frustrated and betrayed”, 3) Let him know: “My intention was not to hurt you.  I made the wrong assumption.  How can I make this up to you?” As people’s emotions are acknowledged and addressed they are able to get back more quickly into their “reasoning” brain to allow for a good solution to emerge.

Instead I launched into a 3-step (these three steps were quite spontaneous and not pre-meditated, I might add) counter-attack: 1) I took his words quite personally, 2) I responded with blaming him: “Why are you always seeing yourself as a victim and blaming everyone else for what happens?” 3) “You always take everything so personally” (I get the irony of this in retrospect).  Needless to say it didn’t end well.

The incident must have been bothering me at night as I woke up with an epiphany this morning.  Until yesterday, I was in “blame” and “justification” mode. It was his fault because I was not giving myself permission to fail. After all, I was the high and mighty executive coach who practices what they preach. This morning, as I gave myself permission to be human, to fail, I realized that I had some accountability in what happened yesterday.  I realize I need to accept, apologize, make amends, and adapt my behavior for the next time.

I realized that giving ourselves permission to fail as leaders actually helps us take accountability for our actions and learn the lessons from our failure.  We can then go about making the amends that need to be made, asking for forgiveness, and learning to adapt our actions for the future.

Here are the questions I leave us with:

– If we don’t give ourselves as leaders permission to fail, to be human, to be humbled, to make corrections, how do we ever learn and grow?

What if the pressure of “being perfect” creates narcissists for whom it is shamefully unbearable to accept accountability for their actions, so mistakes are corrected too late?

– What if, on the other hand, as a culture we expected our leaders, heroes (and ourselves) to be human? What if we expected our task on this earth to do our best, to fail, to be accountable for our actions, to learn from our mistakes? How would our organizations be different?

– What if, giving ourselves permission to fail makes us better leaders?

Of course, giving ourselves permission to fail does not imply we don’t strive for excellence. In my opinion it is just a faster path to achieving it because we are able to learn from our mistakes. I would welcome your comments, discussion and disagreement. If this resonated for you, please subscribe and share with others.

Additional Resources:

A recent personal failure and what I learned: Leadership Lessons in How to Fail Well

Henna Inam - Professional Photo - ColorThis article was written by Henna Inam, executive coach, speaker, and consultant.  She works with women to help them realize their potential to be authentic, transformational leaders. They create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth, and engagement. Her corporate clients include Coca Cola, UPS, Nestle, J&J, and others who know female leadership talent is good for business. To accelerate your own growth connect with her here. Connect on Twitter @hennainam.