There are few things I love more about being a leader than watching someone step up to the plate and crush it. Whether it was an event, a song, a lesson or an entire retreat, I love seeing students WIN. There is something about walking beside them as they plan, dream and prepare, as they wrestle with the details and dream big about what God is going to do.
Have you ever thought about seeing your students LOSE? Stay with me, the WINS are incredible, but letting a student lose at something can be even more valuable.
This year, we held our annual talent show, which is a hilarious mix of “My Heart Will Go On” played on the recorder while dancing, and students who actually are talented at things. We let a young leader and an 11th-grade student plan and execute the night, checking in throughout process to make sure they had thought through the night but not micromanaging it.
Early on in the planning, we made a list of all the things that they thought needed to be done, and we suggested some they hadn’t thought of and checked in throughout the process. As the date got closer, there were things that I noticed had not been taken care of or seemed poorly thought out or not thought out all. As these continued to mount, I pulled the team back in and went over the list, went over what had been done and had a frank conversation about where things were going. They felt pretty defeated. They came into the meeting feeling pretty confident, bordering on cocky, and after 10 minutes of tough questions about how they had been investing their time, they realized they had failed at many aspects of the planning.
We chose to have this conversation ahead of the event because I would never knowingly let a student fail in front of their peers. Losing is one thing, embarrassment and avoidable shame are another. While I did want to buffer them a bit, I did want them to experience failure at some level because knowing what it’s like to lose is a character-building experience:
Losing breeds humility: We have to look no further than any sports team on a winning streak to see what hubris looks like. When we win, we feel on top of the world and with that comes pride, and there are few things that are more dangerous than pride, especially in a young person. It is our job to help them understand why it’s unhealthy, and there is no faster way to learn than failing at something. Humility in Christian leadership is an asset, pride is divisive and can be hurtful, so for us, modeling and teaching humility is most easily taught in the midst of failure.
Losing makes victory taste sweeter: I never played on a team that won anything when I was growing up; we were perennial “participants” in every sport and I have the ribbons to prove it. But all of that losing sure made winning feel amazing. I knew what losing felt like and tasted like, these experiences helped me appreciate the wins even more. If students never experience the valleys, I am not sure they will ever appreciate the mountaintops. Not only that, if they never experience the valleys when they are in your care, do you think they will be able to handle them on their own? We need to teach students to fail forward and fail fast.
Losing fosters growth: There are few times in my life that have forced me to grow as a person and grow in my leadership as when something went totally sideways. Those moments when you think you have it all figured out and you find out in dramatic fashion that you don’t. Failures and losses are where people grow, and students need to know what it feels like, what got them there and what can be done differently next time to prevent it. Losing leads to growing.
Losing builds confidence: Experiencing failure in a scenario that has some amount of safety to it can actually foster the building of confidence. A safety net builds the confidence for a trapeze artist; it doesn’t keep them from falling, but it does keep the fall from being fatal. If our students know it’s safe to fail, they will know it’s safe to take risks, and students taking leadership risks in safe environments can transform your ministry.
It is vitally important to create spaces where students can dream, and dream big, about what God wants to do in their schools and in our ministries. Part of allowing students to dream is allowing them the space to fail and having the people and leadership there to pick them up, see how they can learn from it and encourage them to try it again. Together we can celebrate the wins and learn from the losses, and our students, ministries, churches and communities will be better for it.