Courageous Leaders: Leaning Actively into Failure

By Paul Marcus  |  March 7th

What does it mean to be a courageous leader? Perhaps the phrase conjures images of a valiant William Wallace in Braveheart:

"Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you'll live, at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!"

Perhaps you think of the lone Chinese citizen confronting the tanks at Tiananmen Square, Rosa Parks refusing an order to leave her seat, or even images of a more recent current event as we see average everyday Ukrainians take up arms to prevent their country from being overtaken by Russian troops.

In this light, what I’m about to write will seem trite. But each of us as school leaders must summon courage each day to lead our teams and our communities well.

Courageous leadership has at its core the willingness to fail. That might seem simple, but it’s also profound. We as leaders are generally pretty failure averse. It’s not really in our DNA to pursue projects that might fail. We love the feeling that we get when we make a decision that makes people happy. And generally, decisions that make people happy are decisions that maintain the status quo. However, maintaining the status quo is not growing, it’s actually more akin to slowly dying.

The problem is this: the most significant moments of growth happen through failure. Ask most people to tell you a story about a moment of significant growth in their life and it’s not likely to be just about moments of joy and ecstasy. Most people will tell you a story about heartache, heartbreak, conflict, perseverance and yes, failure. Not all failure-to-growth stories are feature-film worthy; most are small, day-to-day failures that form us by changing the way we act.

In Craig Groeschel’s address entitled Strategic Unreasonableness at this year’s GLS Special Edition, he recommended that “when you fail, fail actively, not passively.” Is Groeschel advising leaders to try and fail? No, but he is suggesting that if leaders are leading courageously, failure will likely occur. I believe he is further suggesting that there are ways that courageous leaders can wisely take risks and learn from failure.

I’m not an expert in this, but here are a few things that I think courageous leaders can do:

  1. Engage a strategy coach or accountability partner.

At times, we can get stuck inside of our own heads. We have plenty of ideas to try, but the day-to-day minutiae get in the way. Engaging a trusted leader, or even hiring a strategy coach can help to hold us accountable to our ideas, goals, objectives, and dreams. A good coach or partner can help refine your risky ideas and encourage your willingness to attempt new things.

  1. Seek out new ideas from outside of your organization.

Although all courageous leaders have great ideas, they don’t have the monopoly on great ideas. Visit other schools, read new books, talk to other leaders. Seeing what other leaders have done and learning from their mistakes can help give you the courage to try new endeavours.

  1. Set annual goals for your work.

Rarely do innovations and improvements happen without intentionality. I like to set 4 or 5 goals for myself that I can keep going back to throughout the year. I set mini objectives within these goals that I reflect on each month and push myself to continue making achievements towards them. This may seem rudimentary, but I believe that setting goals for your work is a significant aspect of endeavoring to fail actively.

  1. Keep a failure journal.

Although I haven’t personally done this, perhaps this could be a way to intentionally learn from your successes and failures. As you attempt new things and take calculated risks, keep a tally of what successes and failures you observe. Perhaps as you reflect, you’ll begin to notice positive and negative trends that you can learn from.

I remember a poster that hung from the wall of my elementary school classroom that said, “Growth is the only evidence of life”. I believe that courageous leaders want to grow; they want to grow themselves, they want to grow those around them, and they want to grow their organizations. However, I also know that growth requires risk, risk can lead to failure, and that failure is painful. Groeschel reminded us in his speech that “growth and comfort never coexist”. Courageous leader: there is growth ahead if you are willing to trust your God-given talents, take risks, and lean actively into your failures.

Paul Marcus is the Durham Region Cohort Leader, and Principal at Knox Christian School in Bowmanville, Ontario.