Failure Is Not An Option?

I blew it. Messed up. Failed big time. Yup. I sucked! Writing about my failures is the last thing I want to do. However, someone recently told me vulnerability was a good thing. So, here it goes.

As a principal, I am responsible for many moving pieces. My primary job is safety and learning. I have many other important tasks as well to keep the machine running. School culture and climate, helping students, teachers, and parents feel part of something bigger than themselves is important. Nobody learns when they do not feel welcome or loved. Relationships really do matter for everyone at our school. However, I cannot help but consider the current academic results of our students. It is disappointing to admit we have not demonstrated the growth or met our targets. 

Internally, I want to come up with reasons why and excuse my leadership. It would be easy to blame someone. But who can I blame? I cannot blame the students. They did what we asked them to do; show us what you have learned. Nor can I blame the teachers or the parents. In fact, what good does it do to blame anyone? Shifting responsibility to others only maintains my situation. In fact, I need to get out of the situation I am in. 

I honestly struggled with this reality for several weeks. I was angry and defensive. Our school, “my” school, was underperforming. Of course, I shared this only with my closest friends and my wife. Why risk vulnerability and expose me to public humiliation by sharing it beyond this small circle? It is so much easier to stay safe and hide behind a mask. However, it took my time of vacation to process this serious topic of failure. 

My fear of Failure

Given my recent setback with my instructional leadership, I set about reading up on failure. It was perfect timing as the new year granted me many articles on the topic of goals and resolutions (and why so many of them fail). What I found was fascinating and reassuring. I have begun a process to develop some of my personal and professional goals that will challenge me to stretch and grow. I may share some of these in the future, but I thought I might share some concepts of what I have learned so far.


When we fear failure, we risk becoming mediocre. 

  • Risk avoidance creates safety, but this philosophy would never have helped mankind land on the moon.
  • No one dates mediocre.
  • People are looking for complex solutions and thought partners, not stale answers or safe bets.

When we face our fear of failure, it is good to give it a name.

  • By naming something, we call it into being. This nominalization allows us to deal with the fear of failure. We can describe it, quantify it, and give it other qualities.
  • Once we name it, we must make a decision on what to do with it.
  • The ability to have choice allows for Agency. When we are in control, we have power.

When we choose to fight our fear of failure (and mediocrity), we require a plan.

  • We need to invest time to envisioneer something big. 
  • Any plan must include the risks, the rewards, the contingencies, and the cost of inaction.
  • Understand no plan survives contact with the enemy. The journey may be more important than the outcome you seek.

As I spent time looking at the beauty of failure, the topic of goals, why they fail, and reflecting on my current personal and professional life, I was struck by how easy it is to play it safe. Where are you at with your personal and professional life? How is the fear of failure keeping safe and mediocre? Are you willing to adventure out? 

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for. – J.A. Shedd

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