Failures Empower Leadership

By Mark Graybill

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

I read an article by the entrepreneurial leadership phenomenon Jeff Stibel. If you don’t know anything about Jeff, I recommend you Google him.

He has an impressive background and accomplishments, a great outlook, demeanor, and personality.

As impressive as Jeff’s accomplishments may be, it does not mean greatness is confined only to people such as Jeff.

You can be a great leader whatever the size of your playing field.

The article was about a low-tech social media device Jeff calls The Failure Wall.

Personal Act of Leadership Service

In a world where concepts and theories get more and more complex, such a simple thing as what Jeff did for his company is a welcome change. It was even more impactful once employees learned he stayed up until 1:00 A.M. creating the wall himself instead of contracting it out. That personal touch conveyed the message he is in the trenches with them and he cares – it was a personal act of leadership service.

The Failure Wall was a public device started from the personal effort to make it safe to share personal failures publicly. This is a remarkable thing, and if you didn’t catch it, I emphasized connecting personally with the public.

What Jeff’s article brought back to the forefront of my mind are key lessons I learned in the sales trenches decades ago. I wasn’t a great success, nor did I stay in that field for long, but the lessons I learned forever changed me. So I thought I’d share some of them here.

Many of you may be in the same boat, and hopefully, this will help you recall some of the same lessons. We are all in the leadership trenches together, so we can learn from each other, draw from each other’s strengths and, like The Failure Wall, learn from each other’s failures.

Our failures empower us to succeed.

Planning Your Business Using Post It Notes

Simply Lead Success

The concept of leading success seems a little nebulous, but it is for a reason. The statement lead success is an action that alludes to the following:

  • Lead by example. The buck stops with you.
  • Make no excuses. Failure is no excuse to quit.
  • Success is the goal, not avoiding failure.

The concept of “leading success” is a simple yet powerful mantra that can guide your perceptions, your decisions, and your actions.

Your perceptions are a big part of what dictates your success – they comprise your bias.

They influence your worldview (particularly how you view others), they dictate what you pay attention to and what you ignore (what false assumptions you never discover), and they give rise to your thoughts.

Your perceptions and thoughts give rise to your decisions and your actions.

Do you think you could gauge and check your thoughts, decisions, and actions in a context where it matters using this simple mantra?


You can increase success if you learn to stop a thought process or at least stop your response to a thought process.

So ask yourself: does this lead to success? In so asking, however, you may find yourself digging a little deeper into introspection. This is okay, by the way.

You might think you don’t have time for it and find yourself dismissing the thought. Try applying the process for the thought that would dismiss such introspection and ask yourself:

  • What will happen if I pause now and engage in this introspection?
  • Is time so critical right now that a few minutes or even a few moments cannot be spared to improve my leadership in context?

The Failure Wall Metaphor

The Failure Wall is a metaphor for our personal leadership.

It is important to have a journal set aside for your failures, to unload them, analyze them and learn from them – to get back up and at it again. Consider the journal an accounting journal where we record, as Sophia Loren suggested, the dues we paid to have a full life and, as Thomas Edison suggested, to record what doesn’t work. And as Winston Churchill suggested, to help go from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm.

The metaphor can also influence how we address the failures of others on our team and how we lead them out of failure into success. Failure may have resulted from a lack of effort or professional neglect, which you would need to address differently at first. But great care must be taken in those situations.

I have seen on occasion a leader almost demanding perfection from a direct report which failed and was dismissed, only to go to another company and succeed.

Could such an individual have been led to success and the company reap their productivity with a different leadership style?

Employees Empowering Leadership


Doing is the most important aspect of leadership.

Simply put, leaders do. We leaders must avoid getting paralyzed by indecision. We must recognize self-defeating attitudes, perceptions, and thoughts – and ask ourselves: Am I just afraid of failing? Am I afraid of the ridicule of others or simply feel they wouldn’t approve? Am I simply playing it safe by not doing it?

We would do well as leaders to develop the habit of doing, and especially developing the skill of detecting when our own self-defeating obstacles are stopping us.

An example:

I recently invested in several e-Reader devices to learn how to develop software for them because I believe they would be inexpensive alternatives for healthcare providers to go paperless.

The potential was worth the investment because the low-cost devices could be purchased by the pallet.

I didn’t know if I would be able to develop software for them or if the manufacturers would even allow me to do it. I only succeeded sufficiently with one of the devices, a Sony e-Reader. I succeeded in placing patient forms, including questionnaires, on the device and providing the ability to draw on it, line through text, handwrite in text, initial it, and sign it.

These were critical points of success in capturing the market share, and I started not knowing if I could even get to square 1.

The other devices were expensive failures (well, expensive to a lowly Ph.D. student). I even contacted Sony and was met with a positive response. But I’m not successful yet; I still must continue to do.

Being Genuine

No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

This echoes a principle in Og Mandino’s book The Greatest Salesman in the World. And taking Dale Carnegie’s advice in being genuine, learn the skill of choosing to care about people. Learning this skill empowers people to rethink how they regard people and how they evaluate them.

In doing this, my outlook toward others took a significant turn to the positive and has significantly impacted the efficacy of my leadership.

Community Spirit of Leadership

Leadership is also about community.

This refers to a community operating in the spirit of leadership, which involves leading peers and direct reports with respect and without being bossy. This promotes similar leadership in them, and it builds team spirit. It also means leading upward, respectfully.

Work to develop a rapport with your superiors while showing respect and also that you care. This can provide allegiance links as well as up-line influence.

Be Humble

This is a hard one for many leaders.

Often people get to a level of leadership and think they have to be the hub of expertise, wisdom, and decisions – or that they have to demonstrate power and control. Consequently, they miss how powerful leadership can be by allowing leadership to develop under them – by empowering direct reports and harvesting their expertise.

Doing so is risky, but leadership is about turning something risky into something manageable. If you want to avoid risk, I will refer you to the art of management.

Delegation skills are a powerful tool in a leader’s toolbox. It is more effective for a leader to assemble their team and present the decisions, problems, or dilemmas to them and solicit their input.

They might facilitate brainstorming meetings and act merely as the facilitator so that whatever solution is found is owned by the team. This feeds into the second agenda of every good leader: mentoring their replacement.


Willing to do what others are not, I can achieve what others will not.

This principle is a key element that augments all other aspects of leadership, whether presented here or not.

It intends to empower the leader to not gauge what others have done or would do. It intends to render the hesitation powerless so the leader can focus on what needs to be done. It provides freedom from our otherwise self-hindering, social selves.

How Do Failures Empower Leadership?

If you have ideas about empowering leadership that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Mark Graybill
Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.
  • Bill Rieger says:

    Great article Mark! A lot of good nuggets in there but the most timely ones for me relate to failure without the loss of enthusiasm and about being genuine. I am being challenged in my career right now like never before. I am growing so much that I cannot take it all in, it will take years before I really realize what is happening right now. Thank you for this article, it reminds me to document the journey, including and especially the failures.

  • Mark Graybill says:

    Bill, thanks for sharing. I checked out your web site and found nice nuggets of wisdom there! I especially liked the article about your father (sorry for your loss).

    The part I liked the most was: “they promise to commit themselves to the personal and professional growth of their people.”

    My leadership style began on active duty Air Force. After a long break I went back into the reserves and this very statement is exactly my mantra as a leader. It is nice to find connections like this – Corporate America isn’t always quick to see these simple lessons.

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