Lifelong Learning @ UNB
UNB College of Extended Learning

Leaders Must Accept Failure on the Road to Success

Author: Glyn Jones, CRSP

Posted on Apr 5, 2021

Category: Professional Development

"Failure is not an option" is a quotable quote attributed to Gene Krantz, the Flight Director and Manager who is credited with securing the safe return of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. Although historians argue whether Kranz actually spoke those words, they are forever linked to the idea of his necessary strong leadership and resolve that brought that crew home. I suppose in the world of NASA, failure can never be the plan but history has taught us that leaders do fail, but when they fail, they need to accept failure as part of the journey towards success.

Image of a professional crossing out the words "Plan A" and underneath are the words "Plan B"

My life experiences have taught me leadership requires failure. I have been a leader, a follower, a driver, passenger, a learner, a teacher, and many other things, which has allowed me to take in a wealth of experiences that I would never have imagined myself living through otherwise. Something that strikes me as a common experience, that all driven and successful people have been though and is something that ties each and everyone one of us together undeniably, is failure. One of the single greatest abilities of a successful person is the ability to fail.

I have often said in life that failure is not only a option, it is a requirement on the road to success. A good friend of mine, Peter Watler, went to high school and university with me in the 1980s. Peter is now the Chief Technology Officer of a California biotech company. Although a chemical engineer by training, my assessment of his greatest achievement has been that he figured out how to be successful in the buying and selling of real estate. There are thousands of books written about it and even more courses available for those willing to part with the big bucks necessary to attend. Peter chose the school of hard knocks as his teacher and studied the thoughtful words of his two mentors in this arena: Garth Turner (a business writer for the Toronto Star in the 1980s) and David Chilton (of Dragon's Den and The Wealthy Barber fame).

He bought his first house when he was in second year university. By the time he graduated from his Master's degree, he owned four houses in Toronto. Unlike Donald Trump, his father did not lend Peter a million dollars: in fact, his father didn't lend him a dime. I tell you this story because his journey in this high stakes world included winners and losers. Some people want to say he has been lucky. Some people only want to talk about the winners. Successful people are willing to concede, and in fact celebrate, the winners and the losers. Peter had some losers along the way. Because if it were not for the losers, there would be no learning and it is only through learning that true growth and advancement can be achieved.

The idea that leaders experience failure may sound counterintuitive or outright nonsense. If you choose to dig a little deeper, the learning can be quite profound. There is nothing like not even having a real job and taking a cash advance on your credit card to fund the purchase of your first rental property. That's what Peter did. No doubt he had to take a deep breath and ask himself: do I really know what I am doing? But leaders need to take risks, calculated risks, and on the balance of risks taken, they need to be right more than they are wrong. Leaders rely on their gut instinct as much as hard data. In Peter's life as a real estate investor, husband, entrepreneur, businessman, and biotech guru, risk is not the enemy. It is not being willing to try that is the enemy. "No guts, no glory" Peter always said.

The greatest deterrent to people stepping up and taking a leadership role or a leadership position is the fear of failure. One thing that has always stood out for me is that most people cannot stand to fail. They are mortified, paralyzed, or simply neutralized into inaction by the thought. It has always made me think about the types of people in the world and the composition of our society in general. Who are these few people who walk willingly into the fires of challenge and with the risk of failure - only to be reborn on the other side and continue the chase towards their ultimate goals? This is the stuff that leadership is made of and this is the stuff from which innovation is born. This is the stuff that progress and fruitful evolution relies on to exist.

There is value in knowing your limitations and in assessing what can and cannot be done. Clint Eastwood warned us of this reality in the movie, Dirty Harry, when he said "a man has got to know his limitations". The envelope of limitations needs to be respected but also pushed on occasion. There is definitely wisdom in knowing that limitations are fluid and that in order for you to grow, you almost always have to take risks (and, on occasion, suffer loss).

A chessboardIn the context of leadership, I often think about the nature of motivation. A true leader sees something that needs to get done and does it even though it is known that someone else will likely get credit for it - they are okay with this and they do it anyway. What motivates a leader and what is de-motivating to the others who struggle to step forward and offer to lead? Why do leaders do the things they do? What drives them?

I have been writing about leadership in CSSE's news magazine, Contact, for three years now. I suppose the reason I take the trouble to share my ideas about leadership is simply to remind all of us that failure is not our enemy. It is not the boogeyman or the spectre of failure that is good reason to delay your goals. Every single person I know who takes some risks feels energized and optimistic about their journey, regardless of where they are on the success spectrum. Knowing that failure is there and more than likely going to hit them at some point is no reason to sit idle. The foundation of any great successes is built upon the foundation of failure - this is something I wholeheartedly believe. For without enduring, trying, failing, rallying, and trying again, there can be no meaningful success.

The idea that a "no guts, no glory" approach is what is needed is echoed in a speech given by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in Sorbonne, Paris, France on April 23, 1910. Referred to as The Man in the Arena Speech, Roosevelt was rallying against cynics and critics who looked down at men who were trying to make the world a better place. In the context of leadership and the need for leaders to be willing to fail forward, I believe his words are relevant now more than ever:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust, and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming." - Teddy Roosevelt, The Man in the Arena Speech, 1910

Every leader who wants to experience victory and success must accept that failure is a possibility. One of the single greatest attributes of all leaders is their ability to fail. For you to grow as a leader and ultimately succeed as a leader requires you to accept that failure is not only on option but it is a requirement on the road to success. On the road of leadership development expect a bumpy ride!

Glyn is CSSE's Regional Vice-President of Alberta, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. He is partner at EHS Partnerships Ltd. in Calgary and is a consulting occupational health and safety professional with 30 years of experience He can be reached at