“Failure is not an option” is a memorable line from the film Apollo 13 and the title of an autobiography written by Gene Kranz who served as flight director during the Gemini and Apollo space missions. While Kranz is often credited with using the line during the mission, the movie screenwriters actually made it up based on an interview with him.
Failure is not something leaders aspire to accomplish. It’s usually something they work hard to avoid. Yet failure is the only definition one can assign to the actions many of today’s business, political, and religious leaders take.
There are countless articles and books written to help leaders avoid failure. If it were easy to implement the many suggestions they espouse, why are so many leaders on top of the world one week and buried under the social media trash pile the next?
Like every life lesson, most leaders miss the warning signs that could signal when failure is just ahead. Over the years I have observed a few patterns of behavior that consistently seem to predict potential leadership failure. Many of these have been documented by researchers and authors who regularly study leadership.
- Managing and leading through intimidation or fear.
- Micromanaging at the expense of the big picture.
- Lacking clarity in how they communicate and failing to listen.
- Taking credit for the work of others and being stingy with meaningful praise.
- Acting without integrity.
We all know that, as humans, failure is a part of life. However, if we refuse to accept responsibility for our bad behaviors and decisions, any hope of lessons learned will be lost. Simply being punished for making a mistake will not affect much real change. Forgiveness is a necessary ingredient for restoration and hope.
I’m glad NASA engineers approach their work with objective facts. It’s good to know they can lay out all the options and acknowledge that “failure” is not on the list. I’m also grateful that leaders who do fail can be forgiven.
In my ideal world, I hope more leaders will simply pay attention to the warning signs of impending failure so it’s not an option for them in the first place.