“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.” — author Peter Drucker
“Failure is my teacher. One step forward, two steps back.” @RonGrosinger
How Do We Handle Failure?
When you are a leader, spearheading initiatives of any kind, there are bound to be bumps in the process, and amidst successes, discouraging moments that didn’t work out like you planned. How we learn to handle those challenges can give us the opportunity to make them moments of growth. Taking time to reflect on those moments and evaluate them helps you grow as a leader.
Just as in the research process, sometimes we leave out the reflection step, especially if a project has been successful. In our Lilead Fellows leadership course, we recently read “Why Leaders Don’t Learn From Success” in Harvard Business Review. The authors posit that when we are successful, that lack of reflection can also lead to future failure — because we don’t always understand WHY we were successful. If we can build reflection into our leadership process, whether a project succeeds or fails, then we can gain more understanding for the future.
Reflecting on failure is a challenge, because failure bumps into all of our insecurities, preconceived beliefs, and often our relationships with other colleague as well. There are both external and internal dynamics that impact our reactions to failure. For example, if we are in environments that celebrate failure and encourage reflection, then we are more likely to be reflective about it and use it for growth. If we are in an environment or school that deals with failure punitively, we are likely to also be more punitive to ourselves when something fails. The ways our colleagues or teams deal with failure might also impact our feelings about it.
Internally, our family dynamics, our own perfectionism, and our own mindsets impact our reactions to failure. Do we come from situations where there were negative consequences for failure? Do we hold ourselves to impossible standards? We may have to relearn new internal strategies for confronting failure as well.
And the nature of the failure itself impacts it — was it a minor project or was it a major endeavor? Was it personal or business? The amount of energy we expended might make it more difficult to regroup and reexamine what happened.
The power of reflecting on our work is that we can also begin to tackle some of these challenges above, in addition to learning from our failure about the project itself and how to make it more successful in the future.
So what are some steps we can take when reflecting on a failure?
- Build reflection into your project cycle. Make an appointment with yourself, after a project is over, to evaluate both the process and the end result. Even if it was a success, take time to reflect on what could have gone better and how you might change it in the future.
- Help make your workplace a more positive environment so that your team or colleagues AND your students feel like failure is a part of life and that being reflective about it is a plus. Create an environment where failure can be celebrated by modeling that for others. Acceptance and reflection help. Being transparent and having a sense of humor about your own failures helps create that tone as well. We are all afraid to make ourselves vulnerable, but it’s a lot easier if we create the conditions for that.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Especially for those of us who are perfectionists, we need to do the internal work to praise ourselves for trying something. We have to come to understand that this is not about blame(either ourselves or others). It is about analyzing what we could do in the future, not agonize over what we didn’t do. It’s about stepping back so we don’t take it all personally, because it is likely MANY factors were involved in something not succeeding. And it’s also about taking a little distance if we need to, and then coming back later to reflect more on it when we have more data.
- Build your skills around leadership, failure, and reflection. One of the valuable parts of being a member of the Lilead Fellows this year is that we’ve been taking mini courses on leadership. We have discussion boards as we move through each unit, where we can talk to other school leaders about their experiences. We’ve read articles on leadership from academia and business, and learned new strategies and tools. How can you consciously build your own leadership portfolio so you have resources and colleagues to help you with the really difficult challenges? (In a campus innovation group I belong to, we’ve used some protocols from the National School Reform Faculty as very conscious reflection activities. John Kotter’s chart of 8 reasons changes fail have also been very beneficial reading).
- Build a network of trusted colleagues who can help. We all need people who can listen to us vent, but we also need colleagues and friends who can point us to alternative ways of looking at things. Sometimes that might be our students, another librarian, family members, teachers…but having a variety of people to give input helps. And, we can consciously ASK those people — what would you like a leader to do in this situation? What would that look like? So we can not only vent, but we can get their reflections on how a leader might handle something.
- Build a network of cheerleaders. This is different from a reflection network. We all need a network of folks who believe in us NO MATTER WHAT. Because sometimes we are going to be very challenged by a particular issue that arises and we all need those confidence builders.
I want to share a scenario in the interest of transparency about my own learning experiences.
Recently, I led a meeting of our librarians in the district. I’ve been working with a committee all year of community leaders, librarians, teachers, etc. to identify our learning space needs in the libraries across the district. For our library meeting, I wanted to brainstorm the idea of rebranding the libraries with a new name. I wasn’t set on this idea as a leader, but I wanted to play around with some ideas with the committee but before I did that, I wanted our librarians to have input. I like creative activities so at the last minute I came up with a game. I printed out a bunch of names of innovative spaces, cut them up, and made “poetry magnets” of them on slips of paper. I gave each group of librarians a set, and gave them five minutes to combine the slips and come up with lots of possible names of spaces. I thought it might spur more creativity and then we could launch into our own ideas now that our thinking was stirred up.
Part way through the exercise, some of the librarians started to push back when they realized I was talking about renaming the libraries. I’m glad they felt able to speak up and push back, but it led to a lengthy discussion and the positive energy behind the activity was lost(at least from my vantage point) and we ended up in a philosophical discussion that we have had many times before. Maybe we needed to have it again, and I still need to reflect deeply on that since this happened recently.
After the meeting, I felt disappointed and stressed. I was caught off guard by the reaction and we didn’t accomplish the goals I had for the meeting because we got derailed in a repetitive discussion. I felt like I had been defensive or put on the defense during the meeting and I disliked what that projected and how it made me feel. I felt frustrated that I seemed to hear that they were reluctant to change. And lastly, I didn’t walk away from the meeting with much of a sense of direction in terms of if we DID rebrand the libraries.
I took out a folder of articles I’ve read in the Lilead Project in trying to reflect on what happened. (Ironically, on the front of my folder it says in big letters CHANGE IS HARD.)
A few things I’ve realized since the meeting. One, I could have listened differently. Once it was clear we were going to have this discussion, I should have just listened–maybe passed around a “talking” stick so each person could have their five minute say, and then given myself the talking stick at the end to let them know I’d been carefully listening and during which time I could respond to their concerns and present my thinking. It would have felt less defensive that way and less contentious.
I also realized, after reexamining Kotter’s 8 reasons change fails, was that I had failed step one–make the change feel urgent. It IS urgent to me that we keep moving our libraries forward. But that might not be as urgent to our librarians — they, after all, are only concerned with one library, for the most part. And maybe some of them feel satisfied or even overwhelmed by their current work. How could I have conveyed that urgency better at the outset of this activity? As part of this, I realized I didn’t reflect on who my audience was for this activity. I know our own librarians. Did I take time to think about how they would react? Or was I just thinking about that I thought this was a fun activity?(I can tell you that I was thinking about my own approach to it, not theirs)
We have been reading Strengths Based Leadership in the Lilead Fellows and I have asked my own librarians to take the Strength Finder test. We are sharing our strengths with each other. I actually went back to the book after this incident to think about what I missed, to look at the strengths of our team, and how I can work towards addressing different people’s strengths with different messages.
I also realized, I didn’t communicate the reasons for the activity very well at the outset. I was tired, and had another frustrating meeting right before this one. So I know that I could have done a better job of planning it and explaining it.
This wasn’t a disaster–we have trusting relationships between us, and I emailed a reflective note to all of the librarians about it. Not everyone was even that concerned about it, either. We have monthly meetings and there will be many opportunities to discuss these things. However, I wanted this information before another meeting that was coming up, and now I didn’t have it, so that led to my frustration.
I wanted to share this example because I think the more WE ALL become transparent as leaders to our larger library community, the more that we can help each other growth as reflective leaders. I invite all of my readers to think about and share times they could be reflective on leadership challenges. I also want to thank the incredible team in my cohort of the Lilead Fellows who have been willing to be transparent, share their experiences. and help us all learn together, and to the leaders who have given us such valuable resources.