Why Fail Gracefully?

Fail Gracefully to Achieve Self Awareness

It’s a challenge to quantify the self-described leadership pundits who claim to offer “quick fix” advice to aspiring leaders in the form of books, blogs, speaking engagements, and seminars.

Their answer to great leadership is often: “Open the box. Add boiling water. Voila! Instant Excellence!”

But excellence isn’t instant. It cannot be so easily defined and, certainly, not so easily ascertained because leadership is a complex recipe involving diverse ingredients.

In previous posts, I have touched upon the Four Intangibles of Successful Leadership:

  • Honesty – Tell and live by the truth
  • Humility – Be truly humble within yourself and toward others
  • Empathy – Seek first to understand and respect others’ reality
  • Integrity – Consistently do the right thing, at all times, in all situations

I believe that a lack of any of the above doesn’t eliminate the ability to lead but rather lessens the ability to lead brilliantly.

To achieve the intangibles, you get no magic box nor bean and certainly no bean stalk; you are not given a treasure map. The secret to attaining these absolute and critical intangible qualities resides in “Self Awareness”.

What is it?

Most people don’t recognize their deficiencies because they are not actually self aware.  Becoming more self aware can happen in many ways and I contend that the most common path for people to gain self-awareness is to fail graciously.

Failing gracefully is the act of maximizing the learning opportunity associated with each and every failure that one experiences. It is to reach inside of an unsuccessful attempt and find the moral, the lessons, and the virtues that the event has provided and to apply that to future opportunities.

I’m the Problem and The Solution

Hubris cripples humility; foregoing the former can seem an unconquerable foe. To the hubristic, humility is a four letter word; the probability of giving credit, where due, can be a painful prospect. How do I know? I struggled with this and, at times, still do. However, I have no doubt that achieving greater humility improves my ability to lead.

I became appreciably more humble upon failing several times in my career due to excessive arrogance; in one circumstance, it nearly cost me my job.  In another, it cost me a promotion.  After a number of missed opportunities, I gained the  awareness that I was the problem and that I held the solution.

The Issue of Control

The acknowledgement of my hubris came only through failing gracefully.  The decision to alter my perspective came to me because I began to understand the importance of control.  To self actualize and achieve the intangible leadership qualities, one must first recognize that one DOES control one’s situation. I contend that, inherently, most people don’t really change. I do believe, however, that the only way to achieve deep and sustainable improvement is through genuine incorporation of the Four Intangibles.

What it all Means

There is no absolute, formulaic solution to great leadership; there isn’t one book in the world that can accurately represent the entire concept.  Leadership is a process. There is no alpha and no omega.  Great leadership is achieved through continuous learning, application, and enlightenment.  Only when you appreciate, understand, and genuinely dedicate yourself to applying the Four Intangibles will you achieve the next level of leadership.

But first….you must fail gracefully.


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5 Responses to Why Fail Gracefully?

  1. Tobey Deys says:

    Great stuff – it’s a good reminder of how important it is to hold up the mirror, examine our behaviour, and recognize that there is always much to learn.

    Another thoughtful post, Daniel!

  2. Ted Coine says:

    Outstanding, Dan. A leader who hasn’t failed many times, sometimes even spectacularly, just hasn’t been trying very hard! How we handle our setbacks, and what we take away from each… That is the measure of the leader.

  3. TA says:

    Brilliant post!
    I recently went through what i like to call a “learning experience” in my career.
    I am not going to apportion blame but suffice it to say, i could have handled things a lot better.
    However, i did become more self aware, more empathetic and less concieted( yes…a steady diet of freshly baked humble pie can do that to you. :-)

    There is something to be said about failing gracefully or failing forward. It changes you and ensures that when new opportunities come your way, you are more appreciative and more able to leverage your newly acquired virtues to ensure a higher level of success.

    Thanks for a very inspiring post!

  4. profkrg says:


    You should read the book Self-Insight by Dunning (http://www.amazon.com/Self-Insight-Roadblocks-Detours-Knowing-Psychology/dp/1841690740/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1313860779&sr=1-1) It’s about this self awareness concept, which is actually super difficult to do. It’s so easy to view others, but much more difficult to truly understand ourselves. I have come to think of self-insight as a constant process. It’s really part of learning. I learn something (positive or negative) about myself every day. Then, the next step is to try to fix things about yourself with which you do not agree… that’s another mess all together.

    Great post! Thanks for writing it. It really made me think/reflect.


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