“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.”
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. 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.” 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. 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” 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.
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. 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.
 Poole, Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017), 11.
 Ibid, 33
 Ibid, 35
 Ibid, 11
 Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011). 20.
 Ibid, 21
 Simon Walker, Leading Out of Who You Are, Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions Ltd, 2007), 30.