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.
What if we told you there is a key (or cycle) to failure? And what if we told you there was a way to unlock your potential and see failure as an opportunity for success in everything you do? We believe there is a failsafe way (pardon the pun) to progress through stages of self discovery to tap into a failure, shifting it to better understand our learning process. For us, this starts with the concept of Vulnerability.
When you think about the meaning of being vulnerable it is no wonder as to why we as human beings avoid it as an experience. To be vulnerable means to be open to attack and criticism, or to be susceptible to being hurt or wounded. As a general reaction for survival, we avoid painful experiences. However, thanks to the work from scholars like Dr. Brene Brown, we are coming to understand the importance behind embracing vulnerability and welcoming it into our lives. Now, to be vulnerable is more akin to being open, receptive, and adaptable. While still scary, it is no longer viewed as a weakness but rather a courageous step in connecting with others.
Vulnerability unlocks creativity. Think about a time when felt at your most creative; what did your environment look like? Chances are it was during a bit of down time. Some scientists believe we are at our most creative when we are experiencing boredom. Or at least, not as “busy” as we all claim to be. To actually have free time in our day rather than running from meeting to event to class to meeting. To be bored also means to be vulnerable. Often instead of sitting in those moments we whip out our smartphones to resolve those feelings as quickly as possible. To be alone with our thoughts is an exercise in vulnerability, but it is also when we best tap into our creativity.
Creativity ignites passion. Creative thoughts can be an open door to our subconscious. Our subconscious is a place of unspoken ideas, wants, needs, and passions. These very thoughts may go unspoken because we are afraid of rejection or failure. But think back to a time when you were encouraged to be creative. Think about how much energy and enthusiasm you had for your ideas. That spark of creativity ignites the passion for innovative thoughts and ideas.
Not every creative idea ends in success. When we invite passion, we invite failure. However, they do not have to be mutually exclusive. People who pursue their passions do so relentlessly. Passion pursuits are about the journey, and these paths include points of failure. Think of a goal you recently accomplished, as you took steps toward that end result did everything go perfectly? Were there times of setback or frustration? Did you question why you kept going? That little voice inside your head that encourages you to try just one more time was driven by your passion. You will try things you are passionate about. And you will fail at some of them. The point is that you tried at all.
Picture the process of change as an upward winding path that looks like a spring or a cyclone. As you travel upward on your path, you will have points of failure and with each point of failure comes an opportunity to learn. While it may feel like a set-back each time, when you look at the overall path you can see how far you have actually traveled. Good leaders will promote experimentation, it is through these experiences that you can recognize and analyze what can go wrong. Each failure is actually the process of learning. Learning unlocks Vulnerability (completing the cycle / unlocking all the keys) When you consider the process of learning as taking misteps until you find the right one, you must employ the use of vulnerability. You have to be open to being wrong, or at the very least recognize that there may be a better way. When people try new things rarely do they get it perfect the first time. Learning something new takes practice and that practice can be a continual lesson in being vulnerable.
Central to this process is the importance of psychological safety. Psychological safety is the belief that you will not be punished for making a mistake. It is important in teamwork and individual processing. Studies have shown that psychological safety promotes creative thought moderate risk taking, and sharing of opinions. This occurs when people have supportive and trusting relationships. Who do you consider to be a member of your safety net? These are the people that you are comfortable in showing your true self to, without fear of negative consequences. They cheer for you and challenge you and they are an important role in creating change for yourself.
Too often we stop our journey before we start. We make up excuses on why we shouldn’t try a new way of doing something. We look at our calendar of events and just do the same thing as last year because we avoid failure or don’t want to take the risk to try something different. Or worse, we have ideas for improving events and meetings, but we’re afraid others won’t support us or we we fail in the long run. In short, we get stuck somewhere along the cycle. Fraternities and sororities, while grounded in tradition, have continued to thrive because we do not settle for what was always done. We adapt, we change, and we shift how we operate to move with the changing landscape of higher education. As leaders in our fraternal movement, the question for you is: Are you willing to fail if it means unlocking your community’s potential?
To help you here are some questions to consider for each step in the process. We encourage you to discuss these questions with the members of your organization/council.
Safety: How can you make sure you members feel safe enough to try something new? What is needed to create an environment where members/chapters feel safe to voice their thoughts?
Vulnerability: What does vulnerability look like in your organization/council? How can you build trust among members to encourage vulnerable moments?
Creativity: What are small ways that you incorporate creativity into your life (think about your hobbies, interests, etc.)? When during your day can you be alone with your thoughts (showering, waiting in a line, driving, walking to class, etc.)? What are some ways that you could encourage creative moments in your organization/council?
Passionate: When are members most passionate? What are some of the things that block passion in your organization/council? How might you address those blockers?
Failure: How can you create an environment in your organization/council where failure is part of the learning process? Who can support your organization/council in times of failure to create educational moments?
Learning: How can you incorporate celebratory moments in to the learning process for your organization/council? What are some areas in running your organization/council that could be considered learning moments?
Creativity and link to boredom:
Creativity and Innovation:
Failure and Learning:
For over a decade I booked speakers and workshops to come and make an impact, and to get people to think in different ways. Often when speakers come, it is only to provide a specific service, and then they are gone. Depending on who gave the keynote, attendees might talk about it for a while, or they might not.
In this day and age it’s important to be good stewards of our already limited fiscal resources. In fact, it’s not just money that’s becoming more limited, but time within people’s schedules. Making good use of everything is important. After all, keynote speakers have roughly 50 minutes to make an impact. But what if there were ways to utilize the speaker for more than just their keynote?
I used to think that when I called to book a speaker, they knew it was never going to be just a keynote. When planning a leadership conference, I asked a speaker to give the opening keynote, followed by an afternoon of breakout sessions. I’ve asked speakers to sit with leaders for a couple of hours over food to get to know them and the campus a little more. I’ve asked speakers to provide follow up questions that I can use with attendees to gauge their learning and assess the effectiveness of the program. But there’s one thing I always did – I asked.
So the next time you are on the hunt for a speaker, or an interactive workshop, here are some tips and tricks to add value to their visit:
Structure the speaker’s visit to have the most impact.
Most speakers will be traveling to get to you. This means they might arrive the night before and have some free time before they present. See if they can have additional meetings with any staff or leaders. This also helps the speaker get a sense of the environment before they take the stage.
Create your own learning outcomes.
Not only do speakers have specific learning outcomes for each of their keynotes, but they like to make sure they’re meeting your needs as well. Be sure to communicate with your speaker in advance and let them know your hopes for the visit. Some speakers will even go the extra mile and shift their presentations to include your needs.
Think of the speaker as one piece of a greater educational puzzle.
Often times speakers have great questions they pose to the audience. See if the speaker can do a follow up with some key leaders or attendees. Assess the program and be intentional with follow up conversations or additional programming. Consult with CAMPUSPEAK about bundling multiple events together such as an Interactive Workshop and a speaker to make a bigger impact.
What I’ve loved about being a customer of CAMPUSPEAK is when I’ve asked “would you be able to…”, and each time there’s excitement because we know there’s a commitment and an investment we are making to have an incredible impact of those in attendance. So what would you want to do for your community this coming Fall?