November 14th, 2012 | 1:00 pm

What if We Gave Ourselves Permission to Fail?

filed under Ask A Career Coach

Contributed by CEO Coach Henna Inam

Like the rest of us this week, I was shocked at the recent high level resignations of CIA Chief General Petraeus and President and Chief Operating Officer (and once-presumed 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 had the same reaction.

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: 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 may have 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.

Allowing Ourselves to Fail

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.

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, as a culture, 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 and 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. It is just a faster path to achieving it. I would welcome your comments, discussion and disagreement. If this resonated for you, please subscribe and share with others.


    Henna Inam is CEO of Transformational Leadership Inc., a company focused on helping women achieve their potential to be transformational leaders. A former C-Suite executive with Fortune 500 companies, her passion is to help leaders be successful, deeply engaged, and create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth and engagement. Connect @hennainam. Subscribe to her blog at www.transformleaders.tv.

2 comments

  1. Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval

    Great post, Henna. Professionals often fear failure more than anything else. Yet, it isn’t nearly as damaging as fear itself. Everyone inevitably makes mistakes and may even fail. But if you live your life consumed by the fear of failing, you’ll never know what might have accomplished if you had dared.

    That’s why one of our mottos is, “Forget the fear.” When you’re not afraid to fail, you remove one of the biggest obstacles blocking your chances at success. When you operate in fear, you shut all the doors and lock them up tightly. You shoot down ideas that don’t seem like a sure thing and hedge your bets. This might seem like the best way to safeguard your career, but it’s really the quickest path to stagnation and decline.

    When, as you suggest, you give yourself the permission to fail, you remove that sense of fear and open up the doors to greater opportunities.

  2. Karen Catlin

    “I’m not perfect.” My kids have heard me utter that phrase often, probably too often. Whenever I make a mistake as a parent, I ‘fess up, shrug my shoulders, and say those three words.

    As parents, we have such an opportunity to turn our mistakes into learning opportunities for our children as well as ourselves. By talking through what we could have done differently, our kids can find out more about how we make decisions, how we approach trade-offs, and how we own our mistakes.

    We can and should model and teach excellent leadership skills to our children. I hope mine are seeing that it’s okay to be wrong, as long as we learn and grow from it. Will they be stronger leaders in the future? I’ve got my fingers crossed.