I have often commented that part of my leadership is to create a culture where failure is considered a part of the learning process. It’s OK to fail. As a leader, while it may seem unproductive to some, many times I have watched someone on my team fail. I probably could have stepped in earlier, took control of the project or delegated to someone else more experienced, and saved a failure from happening. I let the failure happen.
Recently, I said something like this at a conference and was questioned afterward. It was a valid question, which went something like this:
I am in the middle of this now and it is tough. Many times I wonder if I should just step in. I am trying to exercise patience. Is there a time you save them from failing?
Great question and that’s a delicate balance. When do you step in and rescue someone and when do you allow the person to possibly fail?
Here is my bottom line response:
The balance for me is in how much the failure will injure them (or the team) versus how much it will teach them (or us).
At times I step in to rescue
Sometimes I can save someone from unneeded heartache. I’m likely to step in and try to help if it wouldn’t teach them as much as it would simply hurt. This includes for them and for the team.
There are failures we can learn from without the need to repeat them. When I was in business, I had people give me fair warning about doing business with certain individuals. I was thankful to avoid the pain of those associations. There would be others I couldn’t see coming and would learn on my own and help others avoid the pain.
Also in business, I learned the secret of making your banker your friend—not your enemy. Unfortunately I learned it the hard way. I have given that piece of advice to dozens of young business owners over the years. That’s a “failure” that impacts the business and everyone in the business.
If the failure is going to derail the progress of everyone on the team, or the recovery is going to be greater than the teaching experience, I’m likely to rescue them.
At times I allow them to fail.
I will admit, this is the harder one, but if I would be stunting the individual’s personal growth by stepping in to rescue them, I may let them fail. Failure is one of life’s greatest educators, so most people grow through trial and error.
If, for example, someone on my team wants to try something new, I may feel it isn’t the best decision, or it isn’t the way I would choose to do it, but I usually can’t guarantee it won’t be a success. Instead of going with my gut, I may let the team member follow his or her gut and take a chance. We may discover a home run and I would happily admit my hunch was wrong. And, either way, it didn’t hurt too much overall, but the individual team member learns something far more valuable that will help them and the team in the future.
Again, the bottom line for me is to discern the greater value:
Growth of a team member by allowing failure, which ultimately helps the overall team.
Or, protecting a team member from needless injury, which could ultimately injure the overall team.
I hope this is helpful in addressing the dilemma. Keep in mind, there are no clear-cut lines on leadership issues like this. Every situation is unique. We keep learning and developing in these areas.
Wow, leadership is hard, isn’t it?
How do you decide when to allow someone to fail and when to save them the agony?
This article originally appeared here.