There is a pop-up museum in Los Angeles called the Museum of Failure. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling failures, filled with testaments of attempted successes and abysmal failures. As I walked around, it was amazing to see inventions that never really “made it” and to discover the Oreo flavors that I never knew existed. All of this, all of these supposed failures, got me thinking – “at least someone tried.”
But it’s nothing like the old quote “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” If you knew you couldn’t fail would you ever actually learn something new? It isn’t knowing that you can’t fail that’s stopping you – it’s fear of failure. But what if each time you failed, you learned? Think about learning to walk. You fell down thousands of times, but you eventually got the hang of it. Inventions rarely start as successes, there are a plethora of attempts and refinements made to make a final product. Things take time, but it’s perseverance and a willingness to learn that move us from failure to learning.
The same concept can be applied to leadership. Here are a few ways we can learn from failure in our organizations, and truly fail forward:
Pass the power, not the blame.
I remember being president of my fraternity and finally being able to use the all-powerful gavel to call meetings to order. Whether it was to adjourn a meeting or to get a roomful of guys to quiet down, I used it often. Sometimes too often, and I let that power and authority go to my head. Then the next president, in his first meeting, decided to pass the gavel to another member in the chapter and have him use it to keep track of time during discussions. He passed the symbol of power and leadership to another member of the fraternity in an effort to involve more people, so it wasn’t just the leaders at the front of the room.
Think outside the box.
We do the same events, semester after semester, year after year. Rarely do we make any changes to the event, where it happens, or what we do. It’s the same philanthropy, the same social, and the same formal. It gets mundane for our members. We’re not trying anything new because that takes work, and people may not like it. When I was a fraternity/sorority advisor, I had a sorority come to me complaining that all of the socials with the fraternities were the same: pregame, bus to event, dance floor with a DJ, and bus back. They told me they wished a fraternity would be more creative. And someone overheard that – the next month the fraternity approached the sorority to do an afternoon carnival. No alcohol, no buses, no DJ. Just bounce houses, sno cones, and a life size inflatable foosball court. For about the next three years members of both chapters would repeatedly say how much fun that one social event was because it was different. And, because someone thought outside the box of our usual events.
The Rule of 3%.
I believe that we, as leaders, should only strive to create 3% change while we’re in office. Only 3%? Yes, you read that correctly. Sounds silly right? We dream big as leaders, and when we fail, we take it hard, often forgoing any more attempts to do something new or innovative. Go with me on this – rather than trying to shift everything in our chapters or councils, implementing whatever new programs/events/policies/etc. we can think of in order to leave our mark – what if we just focused on shifting little things to make them better? If you made your organization 3% better this year, and next year’s leaders focused on 3% as well, then you’ve made 6% change in two years. All it takes is a little bit of change. A little bit of trying. A little bit of failure. And a little bit of learning. It all adds up.
Trying is easy. Failure is a given. Learning takes practice. But in the midst of trying and failing and learning, you’re moving forward and becoming better.