Some people are born to lead, and others develop the skills needed for leadership over time. Either way, young leaders need someone to nurture them along their leadership journey. The best mentors guide and support their young leaders. However, sometimes it can be tricky. As leaders, we want them to succeed, but the truth is sometimes the
most valuable leadership lessons come from failure. As mentors, we need to know when to step back to allow them to fail.
How do leaders know when to steer the person in the right direction and when to allow the person to make decisions and live with the consequences? Each situation is different and there is no cookie cutter answer to the question. Fundamentally, we need to ensure our people are comfortable with failure. In order to get comfortable with failure, as the leader you must welcome failure. However, you should set some ground rules.
Whenever I work with a young leader, my first meeting generally goes something like this, “I want to see you reach your leadership potential and I want you to enjoy every moment of this journey. To get the most out of this experience, you are going to need to get comfortable with taking risks. The best risks are calculated risks that have been given careful thought and consideration. Sometimes your risk will result in big rewards, other times it will feel like a colossal failure. That’s part of the learning process. Here’s the thing I expect from you, if you fail, I expect that you own the mistake and to come back with solutions for what you will do differently next time.”
Having this conversation is critical as it allows the young leader the peace of mind to take risks because they know they won’t be punished for trying new things, so long as they think critically, take ownership, and come back with solutions. If they follow the ground rules, the potential for learning and growing is exponential.
On the other side of the coin is that if we say we accept calculated failure, then we have to have integrity by being supportive of the failure. This requires us to be thoughtful in our approach during the debrief conversation. We must celebrate what the person learned, their likely bold solutions and then encourage them to try again. No one likes to see their people fail, but when it results in a learning opportunity, we must recognize the value in the process.
Unfortunately, there are times a young leader is being bull headed and won’t listen. As long as no one gets hurt, that is also a good time to step back and allow the person to fail. Your role as a leader is to guide and support them. Alternatively, the young leader gets to decide whether they take the advice or chart their own course. This scenario tends to be the most painful to watch, but again, there are valuable lessons to be learned. Once the failure happens, it is critical that you address the failure with the young leader as you can turn it into a learning opportunity. The best approach is to assume the young leader had positive intent, to ask the right questions and actively listening to the responses.
- How do you think this turned out?
- Where did things go wrong?
- What will you do differently in the future?
- How are you going to take ownership for this failure?
- How could have I supported you differently?
- What type of support do you need moving forward?
By going through these questions, you are essentially helping them reflect, think critically, and make an action plan to move forward. Additionally, you are modeling the way by showing your support and helping them get back on track. We are human and that means everyone will make mistakes and fail along the way. Leaders embrace failure and turn it into a positive.
How do you encourage your young leader and employees to take risks? Leave a comment below.