the shape of leadership

Facing the Fear of Failure

Three principles for persevering past risks and setbacks

Failure is a part of life and leadership. Yet it’s often the thing leaders most fear. Why? Because failure means we’ve missed the mark. Failure reminds us we didn’t hit our potential, our goal or our vision. And as the whispers of defeat swirl around us, failure can feel final.

The fear of failure in leadership is a horrible taskmaster. It can sabotage our willingness to risk again. It can undermine our future hopes and dreams, and even dampen our openness to follow God into unexplored territory. When a fear of failure invades our leadership, it isolates us, taunting us with the lie that we’re the only one who has ever failed.

The truth is, successful people often taste failure in big doses. As the old saying goes, most overnight success stories are 20 years in the making. Those 20 years are filled with plenty of ups and downs, failures and setbacks.

I like how basketball legend Michael Jordan said it: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

The apostle Paul offered Timothy a word of encouragement that is essential for all of us, especially those on the front lines of ministry, to remember: “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

So, how do you keep fear and timidity from robbing you of your future? From the life of Jesus’ disciple Peter, we learn three principles that can help us overcome the fear of failure.

1. Failure is a what, not a whom. When you look at Peter, you can quickly identify a roller coaster of success and failure. One minute, he’s walking on water with faith-filled confidence; the next, Peter is crying out for help (Matthew 14:22-32). One minute, he’s praying with Jesus; the next, Peter is lopping off a soldier’s ear (John 18). One minute, he’s swearing his allegiance to Jesus; the next, Peter is denying he even knows the Lord (Matthew 26).

Up and down, hills and valleys, wins and losses. Peter seemed to be blazing an endless trail of success followed by a resume of failures.

But Peter’s failure did not ultimately define him. Failure was what Peter experienced, but it was not who he was. The same is true for you and me. Failure might define what we’ve done, but failure doesn’t have to define who we are.

My wife, Karen, used to teach on an at-risk campus where students had been temporarily suspended from their primary campus for behavior, drug use or other issues. When a student was struggling with failure, Karen often encouraged them with these words: “Imagine your life is one long line.” Sometimes she’d draw a long line on the board as a helpful visual.

Your biggest opportunity may be hiding behind your greatest failure.

Then Karen would say, “But what you did is like a dash.” Somewhere on the line, she’d draw a small mark. The mark represented the failure. It was a single, isolated occurrence along a very long line. Karen would then say, “Failure is a dash on the line of your life. It doesn’t define the whole line.”

We often fear failure because we think it will define the entirety of our lives. That’s rarely the case. Rather than letting failure define you, let it be a defining moment. Allow it to become a catalyst to help you grow.

2. Failure requires a response, not a reaction. A response arises from wisdom, while a reaction arises from emotion. John Maxwell once said, “The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.” The right perception helps you make the right response.

Peter chopping off the soldier’s ear was a reaction, but his humble response to Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?” was a response (John 21). And that response opened the door for Peter to continue following Jesus, despite the seeds of failure he had sown along the journey.

When we respond to failure with wisdom, rather than reacting with uncontrolled emotion, the outcome is always better. In fact, wise responses usually produce valuable lessons, whereas uncontrolled reactions usually compound failure on top of failure. The choice is ours.

3. Failure reveals an opportunity, not an obstacle. After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, Peter stood up and boldly preached the gospel. The result? Three-thousand people placed their faith in Christ. The same guy who failed over and over and over became the mouthpiece for the inauguration of the Church.

Peter refused to let his failures hold his future prisoner. Instead of viewing failure as an obstacle, he found the opportunity that was waiting on the other side of it. And the same can happen for you. Your biggest opportunity may be hiding behind your greatest failure.

In 1945, S. Truett Cathy and his brother scraped together the money to open the Dwarf Grill (later renamed the Dwarf House). The business seemed promising, but three years after the restaurant opened, Cathy’s brother and business partner died in a plane crash, along with another brother. Cathy opened a second restaurant, but it burned to the ground — and there was no insurance for rebuilding. Soon after, Cathy faced a series of health issues that involved surgeries and a long road to recovery.

But in his darkest hour, when he was facing his greatest obstacles and setbacks, Cathy discovered an opportunity: what we know today as the Chick-fil-A sandwich. That simple idea grew into an extraordinarily successful business. In fact, the average Chick-fil-A store today makes more money than the average McDonald’s, Starbucks and Subway combined.

Cathy could have thrown in the towel. But he refused to quit. He didn’t let setbacks or failures define him, and Cathy didn’t rashly react in a way that undermined his future. Instead, Cathy dug through the ashes to discover the opportunity that thrust him forward.

You can, too. Proverbs 24:16 says, “Though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes.

Don’t sacrifice your future to fear. Dust yourself off, and lean in to your identity in Christ. You will defeat the fear of failure when you view it as nothing more than an event that requires a response, so you can uncover an opportunity.

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