DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Failure: To Learn or Not to Learn

Written by: on January 26, 2021

Our perspective is often skewed by the circumstances of life until something happens that helps us see beyond our current perspective into something beyond ourselves. Have you ever questioned your presumptions about failure? How we perceive failure is critical to being an effective leader.  John Maxwell points out that we often look at failure through multiple lenses. We often think failure is 100% avoidable, but it’s not. We believe failure is an event instead of a moment in time. We think failure is objective, when in reality we often define failure by how much push back we get from others. Failure is not our enemy. In fact, it is often a place of fertile ground. We tend to think that failure is irreversible, but it isn’t. Leaders know that failure needs to be viewed in the context of the big picture. We look at failure as a stigma when in reality everyone fails at something. Some of us fail more often than others. Lastly, we often see failure as final.[1]But, “Failure is simply a price we pay to achieve success.”[2]

Some of the greatest lessons we learn in life are from our failures or the failures of those around us. This was no different for John Wooden. In 1925, John and his family lived in Centerton, Indiana on a small farm. He learned early the value of a good work ethic. Though his dad worked for a dollar a day, they were happy and had what they needed. On one occasion, John’s father, Hugh Wooden, borrowed money to purchase thirty hogs. Hugh had to inoculate the hogs for cholera, but soon found out that the serum was bad, and every hog died. Due to the debt and an unexpected drought, they lost the farm which was their primary source of support.[3]

Hugh Wooden also passed a lesson onto his four boys called the “Two Sets of Three”: Never lie, never cheat, never steal. Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses.”[4] Hugh walked what he talked, “Through it all Dad never winced. He laid no blame on the merchant who had sold him the bad serum, didn’t curse the weather, and had no hatred toward the banker.”[5] Many years later John would admit “That’s where I came to see that what you do is more important than what you say you’ll do.”[6] John lived by the belief that actions speak louder than words. Leaders realize that though actions speak louder than words, words are often necessary to explain the meaning behind that action.

Leaders need to realize that words are just words until their actions breathe life into them. Failure is a part of life. How we respond to our failures can in many ways show those around us that failure is a necessary steppingstone to success. In my experience, it is better to embrace one’s failure instead of pretending it never happened. Life is messy and there is learning in everything along the way, if we are willing to embrace the opportunity. I am reminded of the old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Good intentions have little meaning without the actions to back them up, but even good intentions acted upon may have unintended consequences. Nevertheless, leading by example is still critical to being a good leader. John Wooden would say it this way, “A leader must be what he wants the team to become. Your example counts most.”[7]


  [1] John Maxwell, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success (Nashville; Thomas Nelson,  2000) 12-16. My summation

  [2] John Maxwell, Failing Forward, 17

  [3] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life (New York; St. Martins Griffin, 2015) 7.

  [4] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life, 8.

  [5] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life, 8

  [6] Seth Davis, Wooden: A Coach’s Life, 8

  [7] John Wooden and Steve Jamison, John Wooden’s Leadership Game Plan for Success (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009) 32.

About the Author


Greg Reich

Entrepreneur, Visiting Adjunct Professor, Arm Chair Theologian, Leadership/Life Coach, married 39 years, father and grandfather. Jesus follower, part time preacher! Handy man, wood carver, carpenter and master of none. Outdoor enthusiast, fly fisherman, hunter and all around gun nut.

8 responses to “Failure: To Learn or Not to Learn”

  1. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    One addage in the innovation field is “Make original mistakes.” It captures the need to learn from failures (be they fast, cheap and forward), AND the need to learn from others who have gone before us. Make original mistakes.

  2. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Learning to own our mistakes and failures requires humility that we don’t often want to show, but when we do it breathes new life into our work. I remember the first time I led a team for my previous organization, for the first two weeks or so I made mistake after mistake and was failing in my ability to communicate with my team. I didn’t want to own up to it, but I knew if I didn’t address it then the whole experience would be a wash. When we had our heart to heart, I owned up to my failure as a leader and for all of the miscommunications we were facing. After that chat, we had a renewed sense of momentum to our work and our relationships with one another.

  3. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Last semester I kept wondering “What would it look like for a leader to publicly own up to their failure?” Soon after, the general who was overseeing the vaccine roll out confessed publicly that he had miscalculated the roll out plan because he had used faulty information; he didn’t double check his numbers and trusted numbers that didn’t include current information. He apologized. Owned up to his part of the failure. Promised to do better moving forward. It was lovely to see on the national stage where the blame game has become SOP. As we continue to move through this pandemic, it is clear that, in general, our society hates failure. We have no tolerance for it, and condemn those who are trying to hit the target each day but the target keeps moving, so they keep failing. But persistence in being willing to fail is our only way forward.

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    Your post reminded me a little about mine from last week- how leaders are forged by their experiences. When we endure challenges with integrity, we are better able to put those challenges in perspective and lead from a more authentic place. What’s one lesson you’ve learned from failure that someone might include in your biography one day?

  5. mm Greg Reich says:

    John, I will sum it up in one sentence. “Skill and charisma can take you up the ladder of success, but it is character that keeps you there.” It’s interesting how it takes a life time to climb the ladder to success but one lapse in judgement to bring it down. Sadly, my own lapse in character several years ago destroyed a very lucrative career. Though the income loss was hard to swallow the spiritual restoration and healing has been well worth the process.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      Thanks Greg. I’m grateful that our faith teaches us that redemption is an ongoing work. My tradition would use words like “sanctifying grace.” And even in those moments when we fall short of God’s expectations and our own, God’s grace is still working. Honored to be on this journey with you.

  6. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Failure and humility. A place of preparation, as you said ‘a fertile ground.’ Two sets of three 🙂 I’m going to put those on a whiteboard for my daughter to consider for perspective’s sake.

    The quotes you share are so encouraging and then, to learn of some of the story that helped form John Wooden, the life of integrity he lived making credible the quotes!

    I was just reading from the Dark Night of the Soul, ‘However greatly the soul itself labours, it cannot actively purify itself to be in the least degree prepared for the Divine union of perfection of love, if God takes not its hand and purges it not in the dark fire.’ (Book 1, Chapter 3)

    So, the question pops into my head, what is our hope through failure? To learn as we would or, to abandon ourselves into God and, this ‘dark fire’?

    Being left with the option to learn then, to perceive growth and development through failure as we would or, to give that movement up to God? I think there’s a more painful way.

    What do you think about a failure that leads to surrender? That is, in the sense that St. John of the Cross connects surrender here.

  7. mm Greg Reich says:

    I believe all failure leads us to some point of surrender or realization that we could have done it differently. For me the question is who or what are we surrendering to. When we fail are we surrendering to the shame or guilt of the moment, are we surrendering to the pressures around us or are we turning and surrendering to the author and finisher of our faith. Depending on what and who we surrender to often dictates whether we move forward in wholeness or whether we get bogged down in the baggage of the moment. For me the hardest part of failure is self forgiveness. I find it easy to forgive others and to accept God’s forgiveness but self forgiveness can be difficult. In those moments of failure and surrendering my life to the mercy of God I am also learning to forgive myself as well.

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