“Being The Best …”

FailureI enjoy online groups which regularly offer stimulus for my thinking about leadership and human behavior.   The Lead Change Group regularly provides intellectual stimulus and practical thinking about leadership and human behavior, mostly through their daily blog posts by a “motley crew” of folks who care about intelligent and positive leadership development.  When I have a fresh pot of hot coffee and am reading their daily blog post, I am one happy camper.  

Today’s bon mot was Sharon Reed’s excellent post on leadership confidence and fear of failure.  Sharon tells about an artist who invites criticism (in the useful sense) of his work to grow in his competence.  This really struck a chord with me, since I believe that being open to criticism is essential to both personal and professional growth.  This concept has been a part of my professional journey in more ways and at more times than I have the space to convey here.    Below are my amplified comments on failure and success, adapted from earlier comments made to Sharon’s post.


I think that a person’s perspective about criticism is very critical to understanding why some folks do not welcome criticism.  I know from my experiences managing, facilitating and teaching that many folks seem to have a certain perception of criticism – one linked closely to negative fault-finding and confrontational conversations.   We do not always welcome what we view as someone else just telling us how we screwed up.

This is probably because many folks who want to offer “helpful advice” do so in ways that are neither helpful or really giving advice.  They are just being negative, focusing on what was wrong or possibly just not the way they think something should be done.  This is easy to do and the people who engage in negative criticism focused on failure and wrong seem to do so from a base of confidence (false confidence, I think), that makes their nitpicking more difficult to deal with.


1)  The focus is solely on what is wrong or just not perfect.

2) Frequent use of the word “But”, followed by more negative comments.

3) A certain air of superiority, as though your failure somehow enhances their own actions and behaviors

If you or someone else displays the above, I’m guessing you are probably leaning toward the non-constructive type of performance analysis … you know, the type that just irritates or deflates, rather than inspires or motivates.

Good teachers, coaches, trainers, and managers who seek to help others have probably developed a view of criticism as fact-based, objective, and comprehensive – in other words, focused on helping a person understand wholly without invoking the negative emotions that we generically associate with criticism.


As I think specifically about “fear of failure“, I think our society overemphasizes “winning” as the goal and only acceptable outcome.   Many “motivational” posters praise the idea of winning and relegate those who do not overcome all others as second-rate or not worthy.  We praise that single-minded focus on “being the best by beating the rest”, which leaves no room for collaboration and sharing.  Everyone is everyone else’s enemy and enemies are always viewed with distrust. 

This is an environment in which it is harder to fail, because society does not reward failure. 

I have worked in or with organizations where the CEO says “We learn from our failures”.  In one memorable environment, we even had a yearly meeting to discuss our failures.  At that meeting, the most expensive or widespread failures were touted as the best, based on the assumption that the bigger the failure, the bigger the learning.  The idea behind this is a good one which emphasizes using failure as a learning tool to improve in the future.  

However, theory and reality do not always agree.  Our managerial and organizational practices still often continue to manage people based on rewards for victories and punishment for failures.  I question what learning occurs in such environments.

So … maybe you should do a quick audit on your own personal and organizational leadership style by answering the following questions:

1)  How do you deliver criticism?

2)  How do you respond to criticism?

3)  How aligned are your organizational practices with your organizational values in terms of learning from your failures?

Do yourself a favor and pop over to the Lead Change Group to sample this excellent source of thinking. I promise you will not regret doing so. 

Opening myself up to much welcome and constructive criticism in the Heartland ….