Failing Forward: How Leaders Learn From Their Mistakes - Peter Boolkah

In the world of business, blunders aren’t just inevitable; they’re instrumental. Ask any seasoned entrepreneur and they’ll tell you: the road to success is often paved with missteps and miscalculations. But what separates true leaders from the rest isn’t their ability to avoid mistakes, but their knack for turning them into stepping stones for success.

Welcome to the art of failing forward. In this piece, we’ll delve into the secret of moving beyond failure to fulfill their potential and achieve success. We’ll go through how leaders can learn from their errors, transforming their setbacks into powerful springboards for growth and improvement. Because in the end, it’s not about not making mistakes altogether — it’s about learning from your mistakes and rising stronger, wiser, and more resilient.

How Response to Failure Can Affect Business Success

The biggest difference between high achieving people and average people is their perception to and response to failure. A common mistake is viewing failure as the end, a reason to give up or retreat. This mindset can stifle innovation, limit growth, cause missed opportunities for learning, and ultimately be the reason for lack of success.

High achievers see failure as a chance to learn, redefine strategies, or sharpen skills, and often emerge stronger. They cultivate an environment where risk-taking is encouraged, fostering creativity and innovation – key drivers of business success.

Embracing failure as part of the journey can also boost resilience, a crucial trait for navigating the unpredictable waters of entrepreneurship. Ultimately, it’s not just about bouncing back from failure, but bouncing forward – using the insight gained from the experience to propel the business to greater heights.

Failing Forward - Peter Boolkah

The Seven Principles for Failing Forward by John Maxwell

The Seven Principles for Failing Forward by John C Maxwell offers a roadmap to success by learning from failure. Central to its theme is the notion that failure is not only inevitable but integral to personal and professional growth.

In this book, the best-selling author John C Maxwell outlines how he has learned to make failure his friend teaches you how to confidently look the prospect of failure in the eye and move forward anyway.

Maxwell takes a closer look to the seven indispensable qualities of a leader that guide readers to embrace their failure and transform it into a lesson and a stepping-stone stones toward success. By following these 7 principles, readers can stop failing backward and learn to “forward, learning from their failures and using them as catalysts to achieve anything:

Reject Rejection

Rejecting rejection is less about denying its existence and more about reframing its impact. When we experience rejection, it’s all too easy to internalise this as a reflection of our worth or capabilities. However, true leaders understand that rejection isn’t a final verdict but rather a valuable feedback mechanism. Whether it’s a declined proposal or a product that didn’t resonate with the market, each rejection offers a unique opportunity for learning, refining and improving.

Don’t Point Fingers

When things go awry, it’s an instinctive response to look for someone to blame. This is an unproductive habit that creates an atmosphere of fear and stifles innovation. Instead, leaders should focus on addressing the issue at hand and identifying what can be learned from it.

A blame game can prevent team members from taking risks, depriving the company of potential innovative ideas. In contrast, a culture that encourages accountability and learning from mistakes can enhance team cohesion and promote a growth mindset.

See Failure as Temporary

Recognizing that failure isn’t a forever setback but rather a momentary pause is crucial for building resilience and keeping the momentum going in business. Failure shouldn’t be seen as the end but rather as a brief pause in the ongoing story of progress.

When you encounter failure, it’s vital to keep in mind that it doesn’t define you or limit your potential for success in your business. Instead, it offers invaluable insights and lessons that can shape your future strategies and decisions. By treating failures as temporary obstacles and learning opportunities, leaders can nurture a mindset focused on growth, which continuously drives progress and innovation.

Set Realistic Expectations

Establishing achievable yet challenging expectations is a fundamental aspect of the road to success. These expectations act as your guiding star, directing your choices and actions toward your business objectives. Nevertheless, it’s vital to strike a balance—aiming too high can set you up for disappointment and chip away at your self-belief when you fall short. Conversely, overly simple goals may not kindle the necessary drive to forge ahead.

By setting expectations grounded in reality, leaders maintain a well-rounded perspective, understanding that success is a journey paved with highs and lows, victories and setbacks. This approach allows you to recognize the strides you’ve made while also acknowledging the work that remains, ensuring you stay motivated and stay on course toward your goals.

Focus on Strengths

Giving attention to your strengths can be a game-changer for your business’s advancement. It’s common to become consumed by a never-ending quest to address weaknesses. Yet, it’s crucial for leaders to recognize that each team member brings a unique set of strengths to the table. When harnessed effectively, these strengths can make a substantial contribution to the success of the business. Encouraging team members to make the most of their strengths can result in increased productivity, higher team morale, and the creation of a positive work environment.

Furthermore, emphasizing strengths helps leaders pinpoint where to allocate resources and assign tasks for maximum efficiency within the team. It’s all about complementing, not competing. Think of your team as a jigsaw puzzle, where each piece, each strength, fits together to create the complete picture of success.

Vary Approaches to Achievement

Success in business is often a result of varying your approach to achievement. Sticking to the same strategies, no matter how successful they’ve been in the past, can lead to stagnation. The business landscape is continually evolving, and it’s imperative for leaders to adapt their approach accordingly.

This does not mean mindlessly chasing after every trend, but rather, consciously evolving strategies based on market changes, customer feedback, and the company’s growth trajectory. It’s about being flexible in your approach and willing to step out of your comfort zone. It’s also about recognising that there’s more than one way to achieve a goal and being open to exploring these different paths. Innovation thrives in diversity and so does achievement.

Bounce Back

The art of bouncing back is a crucial skill for any leader. It’s not just about recovering after setbacks, but about transforming these challenges into fuel for future growth. Bouncing back requires resilience, a positive mindset, and an unwavering belief in your ability to succeed. It demands the strength to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and dive back in with renewed vigour and determination.

It’s about learning from the past, but not letting it dictate your future. When you stumble, draw lessons from it; when you fall, rise stronger; and when you face obstacles, view them not as roadblocks, but as stepping stones leading you closer to your goals.

successful leaders

How to Turn Failure Around to Your Advantage

Turning failure to your advantage is a key skill in the arsenal of successful leaders. It’s about adopting the perspective that every failure is a stepping stone to success, each presenting a unique opportunity to learn and grow. Shifting from viewing failure as a pitfall to seeing it as an advantage requires courage, resilience, and a growth mindset. This section will guide leaders on how to make this shift, harnessing failure as a powerful catalyst for learning, adaptation, and ultimately, success.

Embrace Failure To Launch Forward

Embracing failure is not a dead-end but a stepping stone toward a brighter future. When viewed as a launch pad rather than a conclusion, failure ignites the flame of innovation and fosters growth. Leaders who wholeheartedly embrace failure comprehend that these challenging experiences offer invaluable lessons for enhancement, adaptation, and evolution. They understand that confronting obstacles is the path to developing resilience, unwavering determination, and a growth-oriented mindset.

Embracing failure necessitates acknowledging the misstep, dissecting what went amiss, and harnessing that knowledge to make more informed decisions in the future. It involves taking full responsibility for the failure, extracting essential lessons from it, and then moving forward. When leaders wholeheartedly embrace failure, they set a compelling example for their teams, nurturing a culture of perpetual learning and improvement.

Foster A Growth Mindset

Cultivating a growth mindset lies at the core of turning failure into a stepping stone to success. Leaders who embrace this mindset don’t perceive failure as a defeat but as a trigger for growth and knowledge. They recognize that skills and intelligence are not rigid qualities but can be nurtured through hard work, practice, and resilience. With such a perspective, setbacks become valuable chances to learn, innovate, and enhance.

Leaders can not only adopt a growth mindset themselves but also instill it within their teams. Encouraging curiosity, emphasizing the importance of continuous learning, and celebrating effort and progress rather than fixating solely on outcomes are effective strategies to foster this mindset. This shift in focus redirects attention from fearing failure to embracing the excitement of learning and personal development.

Create A Safe Environment For ‘Failing Forward’

Creating a safe environment for ‘failing forward’ is vital for innovation and growth. This involves fostering a culture where mistakes are not feared but rather seen as opportunities for learning and improvement.

Leaders play a pivotal role in cultivating such an environment. They can do this by encouraging open communication, where team members feel comfortable sharing their ideas, their successes, and their failures. It’s about promoting transparency and trust, where failure is not met with punishment but with constructive feedback and support. It’s about celebrating the courage to try and the learning that comes from failure.

Encourage Experimentation

Encouraging experimentation is a cornerstone of progressive leadership. Some industry experts assert that to truly optimise learning, leaders should strategically arrange for experimental failures – at the right place and the right time. This counter-intuitive approach is rooted in the idea that each failure is a goldmine of valuable information.

The process of iteration – of modifying and refining strategies in light of these failures – serves to accelerate the journey to finding a winning solution. It’s about fostering a culture where trial and error is applauded, and where the quest for success becomes a process of elimination. By encouraging your team to try and try again, you not only fast-track the path to success, but you also stay ahead of the competition.

Share Your Pitfalls

As a leader, sharing your own pitfalls and the lessons you’ve gained from them can be incredibly powerful in fostering a culture of learning from failure. When leaders openly discuss their own mistakes, it humanises them, builds trust, and sends a clear message that it’s okay to falter, as long as one learns from it. This transparency can help eliminate the fear of failure within the team, as it reassures them that mistakes are a part of everyone’s journey, including those at the top.

Furthermore, sharing your own stories of overcoming failure can serve as a source of inspiration and motivation for your team, reinforcing the notion that every setback is just a setup for a comeback. So, don’t shy away from sharing your own stumbles and rebounds. Be honest, be vulnerable, and use your experiences to guide and empower your team. After all, every leader’s journey is paved with mistakes turned lessons, and sharing these can truly be one of the most impactful ways to promote the practice of learning from failure.

Why Failing Forward Is Vital For the Modern Leader

In the rapidly changing business landscape of today, mastering the skill of failing forward is absolutely crucial. It’s not just about personal growth or resilience; it’s about cultivating a company culture that embraces this approach. Keep in mind that it’s the practice of failing forward that serves as the cornerstone for sustainability, collaboration, individual empowerment, and building resilience within the organization.

Although team failures may appear disastrous in the heat of the moment, the adoption of a growth mindset can transform these setbacks into valuable learning opportunities. The process of collectively analyzing “what went wrong” empowers your team to glean essential insights from their missteps. This reflective and learning journey can turn even the most disheartening failures into stepping stones toward success, often yielding outcomes far exceeding the initial expectations.

Consequently, failing forward isn’t merely a strategic choice; it’s a necessity for the contemporary leader, paving the way for continuous learning, improvement, and, ultimately, achieving success.


What is an example of failing forward?

A great example of ‘failing forward’ is the journey of Thomas Edison in the development of the light bulb. Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts before finally achieving a functioning design. When asked about his failures, Edison remarked that he didn’t fail 1,000 times, but instead, the light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.

Every ‘failed’ attempt brought him closer to the solution, and Edison used these setbacks as learning opportunities, refining his approach with each step. His persistence and refusal to view these attempts as failures is a classic representation of ‘failing forward’.

What is the best quote from failing forward turning mistakes into stepping stones?

The best quote from the book Failing Forward is arguably this gem from John Maxwell: “The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.” With this quote Maxwell says that it is not whether we encounter failures, but how to move beyond mistakes to fulfill your potential and achieve success.

This perspective encourages us to see a problem or failure as a dead-end, but to use it as a lesson – a valuable opportunity to learn, grow, and progress towards our goals.

Why do people fail?

People fail for a variety of reasons, often interweaved with both internal and external factors. Internally, one may fail due to a lack of planning, persistence, or patience. Overconfidence can lead to unrealistic expectations and eventually to failure, while fear of failure can prevent one from trying in the first place. Externally, unpredictable circumstances or market changes can lead to failures beyond one’s control.

However, it is important to remember that the secret of moving beyond failure is to use it as a lesson and a stepping-stone. It provides valuable lessons and insights that can be used to build better strategies and make more informed decisions in the future. Ultimately, failure is not a pitfall but a stepping stone to success, provided we have the courage to learn from it and move forward.

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