Failure as a springboard to success

Failure should also be embraced in your communities. We admire leaders who are humble, honest and frank, and we grumble about leaders who are defensive and abrasive. Be the former, and your community will love you for it.
Written by Jono Bacon, Contributor



Those of you who have been crawling through the undergrowth of the Internet over the last few years will have stumbled across this four-letter gem, typically slapped on a photograph of a dog chasing a Frisbee into a tree or an aesthetically-challenged gent of portly persuasion dressed as a Klingon. When the Internet made kittens playing guitars funny, the next logical step in evo-'lol'-ution was to illustrate and celebrate failure in its many forms. Failure, my friends, should also be embraced in your communities.

Communities are fundamentally networks of people; people with emotions, passions and insecurities. When we connect these people together, particularly in an online environment, the core of the human condition is laid bare. One such element is our attitudes towards failure, particularly when combined with a sense of pride. No one likes to fail, screw up, or get it wrong, and this in-built sense of pride often causes us to internalize these failures and prevents us from embracing and learning from them in our communities. In other words, if we ham-fist something, for many of us our natural inclination is to grit our teeth, wish it had never happened, and step-around said balls-up.

This is particularly tempting for leaders. With many collaborative communities being meritocracies (in which you develop respect based on good work as opposed to driving a Bugati Veyron), the reputations of our leaders are forged out in the open. Our leaders know that this respect can be lost in a heartbeat, and there is often a reluctance to admit to, embrace and work on the opportunities that surround failure.

Now, I know what you are thinking, friends:

"'Opportunities that surround failure', Bacon? This sounds like some wishy-washy team-building nonsense." Well, not really. In my experience of working with communities, successes provide an incredible opportunity to learn about our strengths, but failures provide the inverse opportunity to learn about our weaknesses. If we wrap ourselves up in the discomfort of failure and ignore the opportunity to learn, we are doing ourselves a disservice; and if we are leaders, we are doing our communities a disservice too. Aside from anything, if we do learn something, it turns a bad situation into one that feels productive and worthwhile.

So how do we do this? How do we rise to the nirvana of learning from our mistakes, preferably without looking like an idiot? I have boiled this down to a four-step process that we will hereby name The A-Team Model, as you will see why.

Let's first set the stage. So imagine that you have done something wrong. Maybe you entered into a conflict resolution situation as a middle-person and were too hasty to judge someone; maybe you were abrupt and dismissive with someone; or maybe you didn't plan enough for a project and it went all wrong. Each of these scenarios involves at least one or more other people and varying degrees of public awareness of the work. The approach works like this:

  1. Assess - The first step is to take a good hard look at the situation and assess objectively where you feel you went wrong. You need to be honest with yourself about how you could have done a better job.
  2. Acknowledge - The next step is to acknowledge to those involved in the situation that you failed. The key here is to be humble and frank: Tell your fellow community members where you feel you got it wrong, and apologize if needed. Remember the golden rule about apologies: Be specific in what you are apologizing about and don't undermine the apology with an excuse (e.g. don't try this: "so yeah, I am sorry that I kind of y'know, did that, but if John had not talked to me that way, it would not have happened...").
  3. Affirm - After the acknowledgement you should be clear with your peers and fellow community members about how you plan on preventing the mistake in the future. Being clear and explicit here is always recommended. Not only does it demonstrate your personal commitment to your community to be as professional as possible, but it also shows tremendous maturity and quality of character that you can be honest and frank in your mistakes and equally frank in your keenness to prevent them. It is these attributes that we <i>all</i> want to see in our leaders, and if you are a leader, you will grow respect in your community with this.
  4. Apply - Of course, words are only part of the solution. You do actually need to implement the very changes that you are proposing. As an example, if you were a bit fiery with someone in a public channel, a good action could be to step away from the computer if you get frustrated and go for a walk before you respond. If you reach this conclusion, do follow through with your recommendation. If you make a bunch of statements about how you have learned from the mistake and don't follow through, you will not only lose the opportunity for this personal growth, but also wash away the goodwill you generated in the previous step.

I am confident these steps can help all of us grow to be better community members and leaders by taking a frank, objective and honest look at ourselves when we stumble into the very natural and human nature of making a mistake. As I have said throughout this article, this is particularly important for leaders. We admire leaders who are humble, honest and frank, and we grumble about leaders who are defensive and abrasive. Be the former, and your community will love you for it.

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