Back in 2009, when I was more than half way through with my doctorate research, I got an opportunity for participating in a leadership training workshop called “Leaders do not fall out of the sky”. I can still recall the feeling when I first read this title. It was telling the reader that you can also become a leader, if you are not one yet. It made the reader think almost immediately that leadership is a skills that is learned, not inherited. This very thought was convincing enough for me to go and test my leadership potential in this workshop. So, I registered and went for it.
Few days later, the training began. I reached the venue on time and so did every other participant. There were more or less 15 participants joining from different departments of the university. I sat next to a blond innocent-faced German guy named Alexander (Alex). He was below average height (about 5 feet 6 inches) according to German standards, however, quiet well built. One could easily tell that he works out pretty regularly. After a while, the training began.
Normally, one would expect the kick-off of such a training with an introduction round, allowing all the participants to get to know each other better. However, the training instructor, who was a lady in her late 30s, did the complete opposite. She asked each one of us the look at the person sitting next to us. Literally, do not talk, do not ask, do not chat - just look! So, we did exactly that. I turned to Alex and he turned to me and we started staring at one another in an uncomfortable silence between us and in the room. In that very moment, I was thinking what is it that this guy is possibly thinking about me? After about 30 seconds of staring at each other like idiots, we heard our instructor’s voice saying; “Now speculate. Speculate about what you think would be the personality of your partner and quietly take your notes.”. That’s when it started to make some sense. We started making opinions about one another in our heads and jotted them down quietly. This activity went on for about 10 minutes. In just ten minutes, I was able create a long list of personality traits that I thought could be true about Alex depending upon how he looked like. Afterwards each participant shared their notes about their partner’s personality traits and the listening participants expressed if they agree to those traits or not. The person who was discussed also verified how true the observations were about him. Most of us failed to predict each others personality. That’s when we learned the purpose of this exercise. We were supposed to experience failure! The message from this exercise was clear that for learning to lead, the first thing you need is to fail. No one can become a leadership material without experiencing what I call successful failures!
Successful failure is a failure that is inevitable after doing all that's possible to avoid it, resulting in learning what not to do when.
The learning from this entire exercise was that the leadership is an ability to train one’s mind over time through repeated successful failures until you begin to see failure as an opportunity to learn and improve more than viewing it as a liability. This was a big learning. What it meant was that just like we tell our mind to remain optimistic in difficult times hoping things will become better someday, or a baby keeps on training his mind on how to walk in spite of numerous failed attempts; leadership is an ability that is learned after repeated successful failures. That makes successful failure one of the most important prerequisites to become a leader. Every time you experience successful failure, you are one step closer to learning to lead. This learning is a never ending process. No matter how big shot leader one has become, there will always be something new to learn through failure. Many people tend to be part of successful failure on purpose to experience the consequences, so they can improve further. However, those who can learn from failures become leaders. Those who don’t, they remain wondering why they failed. It’s a good thing to experience successful failure. I do not know any true leaders in the world that haven’t successfully failed. Even the most influential leaders in human history experienced successful failure taking it as a learning, not liability.
No one is a born leader. Period.
Everything has a purpose and so does failure. So keep viewing your successful failure as another opportunity to add new learning to your profile. If you can train your mind to think in terms of successful failure being an opportunity, then you are on the path of becoming leadership material. All you need to lead successfully is to successfully fail.
This is a learning from the first 20 minutes of the leadership training. It was a 2 day workshop!