Reversals – a.k.a. failures – are inevitable in business and in life, however, most people are not conditioned to accept them as anything but disastrous.  In fact, we’re educated and trained to avoid them at all costs. As an engineer, I can understand the aversion to failure.  I don’t want a structural engineer learning through failure about bridge design or an aerospace engineer learning through failure of their wing structures on a passenger jet.

Yet the act of failure is often what yields greater understanding and wisdom than getting it right.

Leading through reversals is something I’ve learned to accept only through years of experience in leadership positions and personal experience.  But, my acceptance of failure as a component of success wasn’t always so. The combination of my risk-averse engineering background coupled with a long military career all but eliminated my acceptance of failure as an option. This made it difficult to accept less-than-optimum results from subordinates and made it impossible to accept failure on any anything I was involved with.  When the inevitable failure occurred, I was insufferable. I was defeated.  I was angry…especially with myself.

Does this sound like you?

Getting Over Failure

While failure is not the desired end state we seek, it will happen.  A bad decision will be made, a change request won’t be executed in time, a design flaw will slip past review, a program manager’s first try at team leadership will result in suboptimal results, an inappropriate quip will be made at the wrong time…stuff will happen.

What makes a good leader, is accepting the failure, learning from it, and moving onwards.  This is the key lesson I learned through several opportunities at leading large organizations.  Other lessons I gleaned over my career:

Failing is a step on the ladder to success.  This was perhaps the hardest lesson for me internalize, but I now understand this is an essential element of accepting failure as a part of growth.  This isn’t a cliché, it’s a truth.  If you’re focused on garnering success in a new undertaking you will certainly fail at some point.  Knowing that the failure is merely a step in the right direction helps to erase the negative context of failure.  “Failing, to get ahead” is a better mindset with which to operate.

Trouble doesn’t last forever.  Even in the darkest of situations, eventually there will be light.  A leader knows that the bad stuff will be replaced by the good stuff, as long as you keep moving forward.  To this end, effective leaders work to keep their own, and their subordinate’s, hopes up.

When you’re honest and stay true to yourself, others may fault you for the approach you took that led to the failure, but they won’t fault you for your word.”

Know what you stand for before a crisis hits.  Trying to figure-out your inner mojo in the midst of responding to a crisis, wastes energy, broadcasts to everyone that you don’t know what you’re doing, and may well make the situation worse.  Do your soul-searching early in your leadership endeavor and know yourself.

Be honest and stand for integrity.  No matter how bad it gets, as a leader you must leverage your honesty and integrity.  When everything is falling down, when failure is at your doorstep, your honesty and integrity will be your suit of armor that will protect you through the fray.  When you’re honest and stay true to yourself, others may fault you for the approach you took that led to the failure, but they won’t fault you for your word.

About Christian Knutson

Chris Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leadership and strategy coach, practicing engineer and program manager. He is co-founder of The Engineering Career Coach, a company providing engineers and engineering companies core skills, leadership, and lifestyle design guidance so they enabled to execute their vision. Chris is also a retired field grade U.S. Air Force civil engineer officer with over two decades of active duty service leading engineering organizations and million dollar programs around the globe. You can read more by Chris at The Engineering Career Coach website, at and find him on both The Engineering Career Coach Podcast and The Civil Engineering Podcast.

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