Matt Paese, Vice President, Development Dimensions International

Failure hurts. Crisis is painful and exhausting. Mistakes are costly. It’s also true that inside the discomfort and loss, often profound wisdom, strength, and innovation may be gained. But finding these is not guaranteed.

For (leadership) acceleration to have the broad effect that businesses need, it must catch on.

What happens in your organization when a promising leader begins to struggle? In the aftermath of a leadership failure, does your senior management team seek to extract learning or to assign blame? 

Are developmental assignments qualification tests that leaders pass or fail, or are they opportunities for experimentation and application of more advanced leadership behaviors?

No one wants to fail, and even more unthinkable is failing alone. But that’s often precisely the risk leaders face when they are asked to take on difficult assignments or participate in challenging leadership programs. When leadership shortages are severe, there is a temptation to adopt sink or swim approaches to development, pushing leaders into daunting challenges and assuming the best will survive and emerge from their experiences as better leaders. But it seldom works out that way.

When leaders are left on their own to glean the lessons from risky assignments, learning becomes haphazard. The wrong lessons are often learned, and promising careers are ruined unnecessarily. It’s true that failure is instrumental to growth, particularly accelerated growth, where so much is at stake. 

But failure will work in your organization’s favor only if you share risks with the leaders you seek to accelerate.

Your senior leadership team’s orientation and response to failure will either catapult or kill your acceleration efforts. It is essential for them to acknowledge that more risk means more failure. Leaders in rapid-growth mode will, by design, face situations that test their mettle. But if the expectation is that they need to succeed in each instance, risk taking will soon be strangled, and growth along with it.

To learn and grow quickly, they will need to struggle through the ambiguity, discomfort, and loss of failed attempts, and come back again to try different, hopefully better ways. With the right support before, during, and after their experiences, your leaders will gain the insight and capability needed to be ready for larger assignments.

[Excerpt from Leaders Ready Now]

About the Author

Matt Paese is a vice president of succession management and c-suite services for Development Dimensions International, or DDI. He is the co-author of Leaders Ready Now and Grow Your Own Leaders. In his work at DDI, Matt consults with senior leaders to design and implement strategic organizational talent initiatives, including succession management, CEO succession, executive assessment, executive coaching, development and team building. His insights have been featured by media outlets such as the Wall Street JournalFortune, and the Financial Times.


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