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Dealing with Failure

December 2, 2016 — 3 Comments

Recently, some friends asked if I would provide a keynote address at an organization’s 10-year anniversary. It’s an incredible privilege to receive invitations like this; they offer opportunities for deeper relationships, collaboration, and (hopefully) encouragement. I take these invitations seriously.

In preparation for this event, I thoroughly researched the organization and carefully prepared my remarks. Knowing that this was a major organizational milestone, I wanted to ensure that my comments helped advance the organization’s mission.

The talk went well—or so I thought. As I sat down after the talk, the fleeting glow of a job well done was replaced by horror as I realized that throughout my remarks, I had referred to the organization by the WRONG NAME! It wasn’t that I’d simply fumbled it once or twice—the organization’s name had two words, and I’d consistently switched their order throughout my talk.

In the world of special events, there are few things worse than an external speaker who gets the name of your organization wrong. And to my great embarrassment, that’s precisely what I’d done. Beyond embarrassment, I felt like I’d let the organization down.

How do we respond when we make mistakes?

Unfortunately, I seem to have experienced my fair share of leadership blunders, and know that mistakes can have a dramatic impact on your future effectiveness. They can sideline you. It’s easy to spend so much time obsessing over your failures that you are rendered helpless to accomplish anything else.

If you feel like you’ve failed, you’re in good company here. Welcome! Here’s my simple process for not allowing it to defeat you:

1. Own it.

Don’t try to sugarcoat your mistake. Refuse to blame somebody else or pretend that it didn’t happen. Don’t run from what you’ve done or attempt to cover it up. Acknowledge your mistake, and own it as yours. Go directly to the person you’ve offended, and admit what you’ve done. Cover-ups never work, and pretending that it never happened simply isn’t honest. Running to escape it will keep you at its mercy. Instead, choose to be honest with yourself and others. You may find that it’s a far bigger deal in your own mind! In my instance, the CEO of the organization was deeply gracious when I apologized profusely and helped me see the bigger picture of the event beyond this blunder.

2. Learn from it.

What lessons can you glean from your experience with failure? Moments of weakness can and should be redeemed, bringing deeper wisdom, greater empathy, and better practices. Following my experience, I have made it standard practice to always print the name of the organization at the top of my remarks, just in case. If correct pronunciation is a concern, I write the words down phonetically and practice saying them ahead of time to ensure that I don’t misspeak in the moment.  I sincerely hope that my error was the last time I will ever make a name mistake like that.

3. Get over it.

If you’ve owned your mistake and learned from it, it’s critical that you refuse to let it take you away from the good work that lies ahead of you. Instead of regretfully looking back, look hopefully forward. Welcome the next challenge that comes your way as a new opportunity to learn and grow.

And remember that getting over it doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting it. Use the memory of your experience to more quickly extend grace to others when they find themselves in a similar position. Moments of failure are never easy—but they’re an inevitable part of our shared human experience and serve as one more unifying thread that bonds us together. What a relief to know that we’re not alone in failure and that there is always, always hope on the other side of it!