Issue 5.6 | February 2016

In this Article: unless we work within the proper limitations of our leadership, we distort ourselves and damage progress and people.

by Jonathan Wilson

Nine years ago, on a dull January day, I was called to a meeting with my Board’s Chair and Vice Chair at a Swiss Chalet restaurant on a Friday afternoon, and unceremoniously removed from my role as CEO of a not-for-profit that worked in some of the toughest places in the world.

It can be argued that I was treated badly and without justice. It can be said that the odds were stacked against me (except that leadership always operates in an environment of constraint). It can also be said, however, that I failed.

I failed to do proper diligence on the board ahead of accepting the CEO role; to build trust with key members; to expose and seek resolution to conflicting views of governance within the board; and so on. In the unhappy journey of derailment, of which my termination was merely the culmination, I have no doubt that there were times in which I made strategic or interpersonal blunders in my response to the increasingly hostile attacks.  My biggest failure, some might say, was to lose my job.

Some failures are due to circumstances, some to character, some to ability: most to a combination of these. Today we are peppered with hype that would have us think that great leaders expertly acquire and implement best practises in every dimension of their leadership. They are perfect.

No, they are not.

Neither are you. Nor am I. We each possess a limited set of innate or potential qualities, yet these are accompanied in equal measure by bad habits, character flaws, ignorance, insecurities and almost certainly, some kind of inner limp; past choices that shadow us with shame, mental or physical illness, relationship struggles, addictions, and more.

If we are this flawed, on what basis can we be of any use to anyone as a leader?

The Gift of a Failed Leader

Failure typically causes us deep frustration and embarrassment.  In truth, it brings us several priceless benefits. Firstly, as I’ve written about elsewhere, failure is a gift.  It interrupts disastrous behaviours. When failure strikes, we experience it negatively because it delivers a blow to our egos and our sense of our quality or ability – but in fact it is a kindness, forcefully preventing us from continuing further down a destructive path. Secondly, failure is a teacher, exposing as it does the flaws in our beliefs and methods, and giving us the opportunity to learn and improve.

However, failure also reveals our innate limitations. In doing so, it prepares us for greater effectiveness in leadership. Unlike beliefs and methods, which can be unlearned and improved upon, our limitations are boundaries within which we can perform, and outside of which we can rarely venture with success. When we do, we either underperform or self-destruct: not necessarily soon, not necessarily quickly, but time will reveal our folly.

Many of us, especially in the West, see limitations as a restriction of freedom. In fact, owning our innate limitations can bring tremendous freedom, because they make the following possible:

  1. We will be quicker to release other talent, significantly increasing the human power applied to a given problem. Our talents are not only added to, they are multiplied in combination with others’.
  2. Similarly, we will be more likely to undertake our personal responsibilities in team, drawing on the wisdom and perspective of others. We will refrain from harming or slowing a project’s success by taking on tasks others can do better.
  3. At the same time, we are able to sharpen our professional/vocational focus, leveraging what we are actually good at, and thus optimizing our contribution.
  4. We will be quicker to empathize with and exercise compassion for others. We’ll value their gifts, respect their limitations and sympathize with their own unique limps. This will inform how we respond to their mistakes, equip them and, even, when necessary, let them go.
  5. We will be humble in leadership. Humility is best learned through the humiliation that comes with failure. It is the fuel in the engine of success, reflected in the question that Jason Storsley, a senior executive in the Royal Bank of Canada, likes to ask RBC’s customers and his colleagues above, below, and around him: “how can I help you succeed?” This servant mentality seeds the same service culture within the team, ensuring that colleagues serve each other and the customer with excellence, the results of which can be measured in the bottom line.

It might be tempting to take these points and add them to some master list of excellent leadership practises. This would take us straight into the perfection trap I mentioned earlier: in this case, the perfectly self-aware leader. Which is to miss the central point: like a thief breaking into a museum and tripping invisible sensor beams, you can’t gain this kind of self-awareness without first experiencing a failure that exposes your limits.

In the years since that unpleasant day I have occasionally been asked to throw my hat in the ring for a CEO role. Could I take on such a role? Perhaps, but my failure in 2007 set me up to discover that, while my ability to lead an organization may be open to question, I do have an ability to help others lead organizations well. The result has been a multiplication effect: instead of my career being the story of one leader, it is now the story of many leaders. When we excel within our limits, it is more likely that others will excel within theirs.


Another leadership insight from

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