DLGP

Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

I Hope You Fail

Written by: on November 18, 2022

“Every year I pray that she would experience failure.” These are actual words that came out of my wife’s mouth when we were talking about her now 11 year old niece. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it at the time and filed it as an orange flag, not quite a deal breaker but a 6.5 on a scale from 1 to alarming. Now that we’re married, I obviously have learned that I should have listened to her more then (and probably still). Her hope wasn’t just that her niece would fail, but that she would do so while she is still young and life is still relatively low-stakes. Anya’s hope is that her niece has experience dealing with failure now so that when she inevitably encounters it in the future, she won’t be completely at a loss.

In many ways Eve Poole’s Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership aims to give leaders what Anya is hoping for her niece, experience navigating hardship and adversity in low stakes environments. For Anya’s niece, the low stakes come from being young, for Eve Poole’s leaders, that’s through simulations so that they can do what Poole calls “templating”. The simulations are “designed to give leaders ‘muscle memory’ about these archetypal leadership activities, such that their bodies instinctively know how to do them.”[1]

Poole proceeds to explain why templating is important for leaders. She offers a personal anecdote about a time she faced an angry man over the phone. Her experience led her to realize that she had no templates for how to react except one from when she was three years old that her amygdala reached for.[2] She goes on to detail the difference between the normal process of data input, brain matching and processing, and response with the faster processing of the brain’s amygdala. She concludes that the amygdala “is able to react more quickly, because he has much less data to wade through before he finds you an answer.”[3] The trick, it seems, is through the simulations, to put people into situations where your body stores experiences where you would normally feel stressed so that when these situations occur in real life, they can maintain their cognitive functioning.[4] What was not clear to me, is whether this is done by making “normal” cognitive functions faster or by storing new experiences into the amygdala.

Throughout Poole’s explanation of her thought process, David Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow kept popping into mind. The brain process involving the amygdala seems to be what Kahneman calls “fast thinking”[5] and what Eve Poole seems to hope to develop through the creation of templates is a set of skills that enhances ones “fast thinking” so that there is more room for what Kahneman calls “slow thinking”, deliberate, normal cognitive functions.[6]

Culturally, failing can be difficult for Asian Americans. Many of my friends, myself included, were raised with the singular goal of succeeding academically to attend a prestigious university. Asian immigrant parents often see their role as removing as many obstacles as possible for that to happen. And for the most part, it works. These friends were valedictorians, club presidents, and often went to the very prestigious universities that they worked to attend. None of them knew what it meant to fail. So when failure did come (and it always does, just at different times), it was incredibly hard. I can recall one person in my college fellowship recounting how she didn’t get into an Ivy League school and it resulted in the desire to take her own life. It sounds silly, and it makes sense. The pressure of the singular goal combined with the lack of experience failing was too much to bear. She had no template with which approach what was happening.

Leadership, as Poole describes, requires failure. Many leaders don’t have the luxury of failing in front of their followers.[7] As counterintuitive as it sounds for a success driven society, perhaps what we really need to do is to search, and yes perhaps even pray for opportunities to fail in safe places.

[1] Poole, Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017), 11.

[2] Ibid, 33

[3] Ibid, 35

[4] Ibid, 11

[5] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011). 20.

[6] Ibid, 21

[7] Simon Walker, Leading Out of Who You Are, Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions Ltd, 2007), 30.

About the Author

Caleb Lu

10 responses to “I Hope You Fail”

  1. Audrey Robinson says:

    Caleb, I appreciate your thoughtful post weaving just the right amount of personal stories and other leadership books.

    I concur that it would be safer to be able to fail in low risk environments – perhaps that is what Jesus modeled with his disciples. Also, do you think the church provides a safe space to fail?

    • Caleb Lu says:

      Audrey, I think that’s exactly what Jesus does!

      I think it probably varies and this is just my feeling, but the church seems to be more of a safe place for certain kinds of failures and less safe for others. Tangentially, it also feels like the church can be a safer place to fail for some people than others, depending on what someone might look like, what skills they might offer, and how powerful one might be.

      I’m sure a proper answer is much more nuanced and more specific!

  2. Kristy Newport says:

    Caleb

    I’m going to use this:
    “filed it as an orange flag”
    This is a good reframe for “not alarming” but worth reflecting/revisiting.

    Thank you for writing on this topic of failing. I like your last paragraph:
    “Leadership, as Poole describes, requires failure. Many leaders don’t have the luxury of failing in front of their followers.[7] As counterintuitive as it sounds for a success driven society, perhaps what we really need to do is to search, and yes perhaps even pray for opportunities to fail in safe places.”

    Is there a time you experienced failure which helped you grow or helped create a template for knowing how to fail? I have no intentions of this being a probing question and you can pass on it. Your blog compels me to ask. 🙂
    I remember failing when I was a new clinician. I shared something personally with a severely mentally ill person. I learned quickly about self disclosure and the need to have some tight boundaries. With some clients I can self disclose limited information and with others I can not. Being called into my supervisors office and the gut wrenching feeling I had will never leave me. There is a template there…that’s for sure!

    • Caleb Lu says:

      Kristy, I appreciate you sharing from your own experience.

      It seems silly, but I credit playing sports and video games throughout my childhood for the lower stakes environments where I could practice taking ownership of my actions, decisions, and their consequences. With sports and video games, I have to make split second, pressure filled, non-unanimous decisions that impact myself and my team. When I was younger, making choices that resulted in my team losing the game would bother me for hours or days. These games gave me an opportunity to create and strengthen templates for how to take leadership in different roles, respond to different team dynamics that arise, and like you’re asking about, how to respond to and grow from failure . As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more comfortable with making the best decisions I can, reflecting on my thought process, adapting what I need to, and living with the results.

  3. Tonette Kellett says:

    Caleb,

    I appreciate your candid post about failure and Asian Americans quest for academic success. It was very thought-provoking. Thank you for your honesty and your openness in sharing.

  4. mm Becca Hald says:

    Caleb, thank you for sharing so openly about your experiences. I love the way you have integrated Poole and Kahnamen. I used to say that I would not wish some of my experiences on anyone, but now I agree with Anya. It is in our failures and our struggles that we grow. I tried while my kids were young to let them experience failure and to learn from it. I can say, however, as a parent, that is not easy and I did not always get it right. We so want the best for our children – we want to give them everything, for them to not ever have to struggle. My son has told us that is one of the reasons things got so difficult. The privilege he had growing up as a white male in an upper middle class suburban family made him feel like everything was handed to him and he needed to struggle a bit. How does Poole’s idea of leadersmithing change your approach to failure and how does it change they way you would like to eventually parent your own children?

    • Caleb Lu says:

      Parenting seems hard so probably just pray a ton and navigate it as best as I can with Anya.

      In semi-jest, I would want my kids to play free-to-play online video games. It gives everyone the same rules, world, and starting points to play with and forces them to deal with things like failure, adversity, difficult people, and choices and consequences.

      In slightly more seriousness, I just hope to find some way to balance having them know I’m always rooting and fighting for them with letting them figure things out on their own.

  5. Thanks for a great post; Caleb,
    It’s true Dr. Kahneman’s work comes up as we engage Poole’s leadersmithing. Like Anya, every parent would appreciate that kind of failure at an early stage instead of a more detrimental one later in life.

  6. Alana Hayes says:

    Its a post by Caleb! I really love reading your posts and watching you grow more and more open as the semester unfolds. I also really appreciate you continuing to teach us about Asian American culture. I enjoyed you using new vocabulary that we learned from Chivers and brought it into the next blog post!

    My question to you is after reading this book, what would you tell your younger self about being a leader and the inevitable failing that will ensue? How could you minister to your younger population at your church with this knowledge that you have gained?

  7. mm Chad McSwain says:

    Great post, Caleb.
    How have you navigated “low-stakes” failure in your professional or academic life?
    A practice that I use is that I tell myself “this is all just practice anyway” when I am faced with a decision that leads to unknown results. It prepares me to be a learner either way.

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