Is it Safe to Fail on Your Team?

Categories leadership


If you want to develop and work with innovative, creative, and courageously bold leaders, you must develop a culture of risk where people are free to fail.

All innovation, all creativity, all new ideas are inherently risky. In fact, in a world that is changing at light speed, even doing what has been tried and true in the past can be risky.  There are no guarantees of success.  Therefore, building an environment that empowers leaders includes making it safe to fail.  When someone truly has the freedom to fail in a well intentioned effort, without fear of personal retribution, then they have the freedom to take the kind of risks that could lead to great success.

Here’s one of my favorite wild ideas. Create an annual award with lots of pomp and circumstance for the biggest high-risk failure of the year.  Honor those who went after something crucial with good planning and disciplined execution, even though it bombed. You encourage desired behavior throughout your organization by who we honor more than almost any other corporate activity.

By celebrating people who failed, in spite of their good effort, we elevate the value of risk and innovation. No, I am not saying that we should honor people who failed because of laziness or carelessness. That would be just be silly. But you will empower people throughout your organization when you esteem the efforts and initiative of those who failed in addition to those who succeeded.

A word of warning. Creating an environment that nurtures risk might confront your internal angst that drives you to seek control. It could challenge your willingness to trust other people. Leaders are judged by the performance of their teams, so you might need to be ready to take the heat from people who don’t understand what you are doing. But, the end result will yield a culture of empowerment that is truly revolutionary.

The price you pay for not creating a culture of risk:

    • Your People lose their motivation to innovate or pioneer something new.
    • Leaders live in fear of judgment and punishment rather than in the confidence of support and encouragement.
    • Your organization’s comfort zone will decrease… people will move away from the creative edge and toward the status quo middle.
    • Potential leaders are neither discovered nor appreciated. 
    • New leaders cannot be developed without the freedom to lead and no one can lead without the freedom to risk.
    • You will face a steady loss of leaders. Leaders want the chance to take new ground, try new things, use their gifts.  
    • Over time, your organizational “leadership” positions will be filled by risk-averse folks committed to the status quo.

This is the 6th and final installment of a multi-part series on “How to Create an Empowering Environment.”  For more, check out the other articles in the series:

  1. Give them a Compelling Reason
  2. The Power of Clear Responsibility
  3. Give People Essential Resources
  4. Leaders Are Empowered in Community
  5. Who Has Your Back


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