Leadership: the importance of failure

During our time in Delhi we stayed in Saket at the home of the beautiful Nagpal family and participated in many group workshops about leadership, entrepreneurial mindset and effective networking strategies. On our first day we all made our way up the winding staircase of Grace Home and onto the rooftop overlooking New Delhi. As a group we discussed what qualities an ideal leader should possess and came up with a top 10 list. Although I already had experience with leadership programs because of my teaching experience and professional development it was very interesting to hear the views of people in different professions and collaborate together to come up with an agreeable list. It took us almost three hours to brainstorm, discuss and rank our list of 10 qualities:


Respectful    Teamwork

Gets Stuff Done    Empowering    Self-Aware

Bold Visionary    Integrity    Communicator    Empathy

After compiling the list we had to evaluate how our leadership style correlated with the list. I discovered that I am an empathic leader and one who aims to empower, educate and nurture others which also aligns with my teaching style. We all agreed however, that a leader who possesses all the qualities described above would be someone with years and years of leadership experience and a person who we would all aspire to be in the future.

Interestingly, we also explored the idea that in order to become a great leader you must go through a complex process that includes making mistakes and ultimately failing. As Erin Watson-Lynn explained in her article Leadership and the Importance of Failure, “As leaders, it is often falsely assumed that our path is a neat linear progression…the experience of failure is a defining moment that requires people to pivot and adapt. Subsequently, we grow and develop as people…” This is a sentiment that I wholly agree with and something that, as teachers, we need to recognise and convey to our students. It is not always a case of aiming for perfection or achieving someone else’s idea of ‘success’ but rather accepting the fact that perfection is an idealistic and often unrealistic concept that stunts learning and personal growth.


Watson-Lynn quotes Forbes saying, “Failure is the most powerful source of know-how and understanding. It teaches you about survival, renewal and reinvention of yourself…” Part of the Project Based Learning model is that there is a strong movement against teachers being considered the ‘experts’ in the classroom, instead we prefer the term ‘facilitator’. This simple label immediately sets us apart from many traditional styles of teaching as we do not claim to know everything and students therefore do not expect or rely on their teacher to have all of the answers. We provide students will the skills, content and tools they will need to become more autonomous learners and develop the critical thinking, communication, collaboration, research skills and independence they will need leading up to senior school and life beyond.

Part of this process is occasionally letting our students fail. This may seem like an abstract and somewhat counter-intuitive action but ultimately failure leads to students coming up with more creative solutions. This way they do not come to rely upon the single ‘expert testimony’ of their teachers and are instead encouraged to seek answers from experts in the field; making real world connections between what they are learning in class and what happens in ‘the real world’. At my school, staff frequently arrange for guest speakers or industry experts to come in to talk to students about their experiences and provide unique insights into the subject focus.


In addition to this, failure also encourages students to develop their “ability to cope with change” and become more resilient as well as teaching them how to adapt. Watson Lynn makes an interesting point that when it comes to discussing adaptability we often refer to it as being a “reactive response: we talk about responding to new conditions around us. However, what I think failure teaches us is to be proactive; the ability to adapt to what is required of us.” I believe that this notion also applies to teachers and to me personally. Each term I learn more about my own teaching style: what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom. Although we all go to university and complete a degree and endure extensive practicals…like many other careers teaching is essentially trial by error. Learning to adapt to different students, a wide range of learning needs and various age groups takes time and inevitably leads to mistakes. In this way, we are forced to be more resilient, develop more creative lessons and actively respond to student and collegial feedback.

Leadership is a complex concept: it takes time, failure and willingness to learn in order to eventually succeed.


Further Reading:

Leadership and the Importance of Failure

Lost On How To Be a Leader?

What Makes a Great School Leader?

Why Failure is Good for Leaders

Young Leaders Tour 2016

One thought on “Leadership: the importance of failure

  1. Gavin hays says:

    A great insight into leadership applied from the perspective of a teacher and a student. Often we think leadership is only associated with a role or responsibility, we forget as educators that we are all leaders. I like the connection between leadership and making mistakes. Sometimes ineffective leadership is the result of an inability to make a decision for fear of making a failure. I learnt recently a great acronym for fail (first attempt in learning) – well done great blog post


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