the shape of leadership

The Three Ingredients of a Successful Failure

Setbacks don’t have to define you, but they can refine you

No leader has a perfect track record. As much as we’d like to move from one success to another, from perfect performance to flawless execution, the truth is, none of us are that good. Failure is part of the journey. In fact, failure is featured in every landscape of success — if you respond to it properly.

Your response to failure is the differentiator. It will either open the door to a brighter future or place a permanent padlock on your present, creating a lifetime of regret. The choice is yours, but to help you have a successful failure, you need three ingredients: perspective, growth and courage.


Perspective is the ability to see our circumstances (especially failures and setbacks) from a healthy viewpoint. Author and psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud observes how the lack of perspective can cause a leader to spiral downward in three progressive stages — moving from personal, to pervasive, to permanent.

It begins when leaders personalize their failure, pain or difficulty. In other words, when something bad happens, they take it personally, believing they’re simply not good enough.

The spiral continues from personal to pervasive (the second stage) when a leader believes that everything is wrong. It’s not just a single situation but the general state of their entire lives.

Failure becomes a disease that infects the entire leader. The downward spiral ends as a permanent condition. In this stage, a leader believes there is no hope of anything ever changing. Giving up appears to be the only option.

Without the right perspective, the downward spiral becomes the natural pathway for a leader. Perspective is the antibiotic that kills the infection.

Author Denis Waitley once observed, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” That’s the power of perspective.


Perspective helps you properly frame your failure so that you can learn and grow from it. Basketball legend John Wooden said, “Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.” Failure without growth is a wasted failure.

When most of us think of growth, our minds are drawn to books, conferences, teachings and seminars. We think about prayer and Bible study and other spiritual habits that will help us become more like Christ.

If you’ll let it, failure can help refine you into more of the person God wants you to become.

Indeed, all of these are healthy practices that can help us mature. But God uses failure to grow us, too. The difference is, none of us intentionally choose failure as a growth strategy.

Failure has the power to be a two-sided coin — it reveals who you are and can refine who you become. In other words, any time you fail, your response to the failure reveals your character. It shows what was already inside you.

At the same time, if you’ll let it, failure can help refine you into more of the person God wants you to become. It’s your choice. The key is to choose a growth mindset that makes a successful failure possible.


In the gospels, we read about the colossal failure of one of Jesus’ disciples, Peter. After Peter denied three times that he ever knew Jesus, a rooster crowed. “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61-62).

Imagine the look in Jesus’ eyes. Peter’s failure was personal, and it could have quickly become pervasive, even permanently disabling Peter’s call to preach the gospel. It wasn’t until after His resurrection from the dead that Jesus challenged Peter (three times) to feed and care for His sheep (John 21:15-17).

It’s as if Jesus were saying to Peter, “I still believe in you, but you have to make a decision.” In that moment, Peter had to muster the courage to move forward … past his failure.

As a leader, you will encounter failure. Some failures are more character-based, while others are more competency-based. Regardless, you’ll feel tempted to throw in the towel and call it quits. Resist that temptation.

Author Steve Moore wisely observed, “The first response for leaders walking through character-based failure is repentance of sin. The first response for competency-based failure is acceptance of responsibility. From there, regardless of the context for failure, resilience is key.”

To be resilient — to bounce back after your failure — you must have the courage to move forward. Proverbs 24:16 says, “for though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes.”

Even though your failure might feel final, rise again.

Failure is difficult, humbling and painful. In the midst of it all, perspective, growth and courage are essential. And when the pain of failure begins to overwhelm you, let the instructions of the psalmist comfort you: “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken” (Psalm 55:22).

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