What You Can Learn from Failure

What You Can Learn from Failure

By Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, FAAN

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”   Winston Churchill


Every successful nurse leader has had the experience of not being selected for a coveted position, failing to achieve a goal, making a bad judgement call or possibly being fired or asked to step down from a position.  Sometimes these failures are quite public but more often, they happen and are never again discussed by the leader.

One of my early leadership mentors was a beloved nurse executive who had served in her position for 25 years.  I marveled at how she excelled at what she did so I asked her about her growth as a leader.  She told me the story of her first year in the position.  She was a relatively young and inexperienced nurse leader at the time of her selection to the top nursing position in this organization.

“I came in like a bull in a china shop talking about significant changes that needed to be made in the organization.  I began many new initiatives all at once and was really not listening to my own team or considering their needs.  I was failing miserably yet somehow I was so out of touch that I did not realize it.  One day, a nurse manager who had been with the hospital for years came to visit me.  She had a list of complaints that the group of nurse managers had compiled about my leadership style.  I was really pretty stunned.  I went home that weekend and seriously thought about resigning.  What stopped me was reading the list again and realizing that their complaints were valid.  I came to see this list as a gift.  I could either change my behavior or continue on my current path which would probably lead to being fired.  I chose to change and never looked back”. 

I was quite surprised to hear this story.  The problems she described seemed impossible to envision in the leader that she had become.  I asked her how many people in the organization knew this story.  She told me that she told this story to other leaders who were experiencing failure so they too could grow and learn.  One of the things she felt she did right in this situation was to immediately embrace the message rather than to shoot the messenger who brought it to her.  At the time, her humiliation was quite public but she chose to ignore it and moved ahead to make the personal changes she needed to make.

We celebrate our successes and most of our nursing journal articles focus on what is working in organizations.  Failure is also part of the leadership experience.  If you never fail, you probably are not taking risks that will lead to your personal growth or innovation in your organization.  Reflection is important after failure to grow and learn from the experience.  Too often, leaders get into the blame game when there is failure rather than admit their role in what happened.  Some key questions to ask include:

  • What happened and why?
  • What key signs did I miss leading up to the failure?
  • What were the consequences of what happened here?
  • What did I learn as a leader from this situation?
  • How will I apply any lessons learned in the future?

Our failures can be some of our best teachers if we pay attention and learn from them.  Fredrich Nietzsche once observed that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”.  This is wise advice for leaders as they learn and grow from both their successes and failures.

Read to Lead

Learn from Failure  Harvard Business Review – Amy Edmondson

Fralic, M.A. (2011). Thoughts on Failure: Three questions to Ask.  Nurse Leader (9)5, 60

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