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Leading through failure


I have served as a nurse corps officer in the United States Air Force for 27 years. One of my most useful leadership lessons came from understanding the value of failure. This sounds like a totally crazy idea, but knowing how to fail well and, more importantly, using that failure to fuel future successes is an invaluable asset.

All great leaders throughout history had heart-wrenching failures interwoven with amazing success. For example, Abraham Lincoln failed in business twice and was defeated during four state and federal elections. In between these losses, Lincoln won elections to the state legislature, to Congress, and as President of the United States. Going through these sets of failures prepared President Lincoln to lead our nation during one of the most trying times in our nation’s history, the Civil War.

Here are five points to remember while leading an organization through failure, with nursing examples for each.

1. A leader is going to make an impact. Choose to make a good one. A positive attitude is essential in leading organizations through failures. John C. Maxwell states, “Remember, the failure is not in the fall. The failure is in allowing our fall to keep us down and to control our lives.” Everyone will be watching you. Those under your leadership are depending on you to help guide them through this difficult period. Will you create an environment that fosters cohesion and teamwork or an environment of fear?

Linda, a strong nurse clinician, moved into her first management position. She was bright, articulate, polished, and professional. But Linda was hesitant to directly address Kim’s lateness to work and inconsistent documentation. Linda did not like any type of confrontation. When Kim’s supervisor began to confront the poor performance, Kim filed a formal complaint alleging favoritism by the unit leadership. The morale and cohesion of the worksite plummeted. Linda was devastated. The director of nursing remembered her own leadership failures and explained to Linda that everyone makes mistakes, but leaders are responsible for finding solutions. Linda met with her director of nursing each week to develop and implement a plan designed to improve communication, accountability, and teamwork. Within a year, the worksite went from chaos to earning a performance award for excellence.

Periods of failure provide great opportunity for leadership to shine. A leader will set the tone for future success or future failure.

2. Don’t get caught in the blame game. Get a true picture of the situation through assessment. Discern if the right people are in the right roles.

The director of nursing moved Jeff from a medical/surgical floor to the education and staff development department upon the request of the nurse manager. According to the nurse manager, Jeff was slow and ineffective in providing patient care on the busy medical/surgical unit. The nurse manager blamed Jeff for work backlog and stated that incoming staff resented Jeff. The director of nursing reassigned Jeff to the education and staff development department while she investigated the situation.

Jeff was embarrassed and angry when he reported for his first day of duty at his new job. But after a couple of weeks, he decided to stop feeling sorry for himself, stop blaming others for his situation, and find a way to significantly contribute to the department. Jeff noticed that the new graduate nurses who had arrived on the medical/surgical unit seemed ill-prepared to perform some of the nursing procedures effectively, so he decided to focus on creating a benchmark training program.

As Jeff investigated graduate nurse training programs at other facilities, he met Darrell. Darrell, who was experienced in curriculum development, shared training plans with Jeff. With Darrell’s feedback and guidance, Jeff began to create concrete training plans for the graduate nurse training program. Jeff was meticulous in his teaching of nursing procedures. His patience and slow pace created a more conducive training environment for the new graduates. Jeff’s students flourished under his instruction, and they praised his clear explanations of nursing procedures. Over time, Jeff became one of the best trainers in the education and staff development section.

Norman Vincent Peale, the founder of Guideposts, said, “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Once Jeff was able to gain control over his discouragement, he was able to focus his thoughts on using his talents and skills to make improvements in nurse training.

3. Provide top cover for your subordinates. Never speak badly about your boss. Maintain the confidentiality of the information your boss distributes. The leader can delegate tasks, but can never delegate responsibility. If something goes wrong, the leader is accountable.

Tara led a task force to develop an electronic health records (EHR) implementation program. She had missed the last four deadlines for the implementation plan. She did not like the EHR software that she had been evaluating and suggested that the organization wait until a better product is on the market. Through her efforts she had discovered a dozen flaws with the product.

Bob, the director of nursing, learned that the executive leadership had signed a contract with the software company to implement the EHR throughout all of the medical sites within the state. Bob’s boss criticized the ineffective task force and demanded a plan within the next 2 weeks. Bob assured his boss the plan would be ready by the deadline.

Bob realized that the electronic records task force was out of step with the executive leadership. Bob guided Tara to a course of action to benefit both Tara and the organization. Bob carefully addressed the committee’s concerns with the quality of the software. He asked the committee to build the best implementation plan possible that included strategies for mitigating some of the challenges experienced while testing the software. Bob expressed his confidence in the abilities of Tara and the task force to accomplish this plan within a week. Although Tara did not like the electronic medical software product, her committee met the one-week deadline. Because of her efforts, the software company was able to resolve many of the software issues before installation of the product.

Leaders are responsible for what they know. If a leader realizes that a team is not following the vision of the executive leadership, then the leader is responsible to align the actions of subordinates to support the organizational vision.

Jimmy Dean said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” Your organization hired you to lead, so find a way to make a positive difference.

4. Get out of the office and support your people. Be visible on your units, in the staff lounges, and in the hallways. Leadership is all about serving others. Anytime there is a failure within an organization it impacts everyone.

Mark, the hospital nursing executive, oversaw the infection prevention program for the hospital. Unfortunately, during a survey, The Joint Commission identified three discrepancies involving infection prevention that affected five nursing units within the facility. Mark’s first thought was that he was going to get fired. His instinct was to go to his office and close the door. As Mark started to think about the possible ramifications of the inspection findings, he remembered Tina, the infection control preventionist. Tina must be feeling terrible right now. He also thought about all of the unit representatives who attended the infection prevention meetings each month. Mark took immediate action to visit every unit in the hospital. He spoke with staff members in the hallways. He framed the current failure situation as an opportunity to build an even better infection control program.

According to Jayson Demers, “The experience of failure is both enlightening and motivating as long as you view it with the right perspective.” Mark knew he needed to spend time encouraging his staff in order to communicate the right perspective.

5. Remember your vision for the organization. If a leader can see a vision, then the leader can find a way to make that vision a reality. The journey leading an organization to success is not a sprint, but a marathon. Help others realize how far you have come as a group and how much closer you are to achieving your goals.

Karen was the primary nurse for 2,500 patients enrolled in a pediatric clinic within a low-income neighborhood. She was frustrated when she learned that the percentage of enrolled 19 to 35 month old children who received recommended vaccinations was 10% lower than the state average.

Elene, the clinic nurse manager, pulled the last 3 years of vaccination data for the pediatric clinic. She discovered that 3 years ago the vaccination rate for those enrolled in the pediatric clinic was only 48%. The vaccination rate had consistently improved to 78% through better education, improved access to resources, and even home health visits by the nurses. Elene reminded Karen that 3 years ago no one thought the vaccination rate could be improved in this neighborhood. Karen had chosen this neighborhood and this job because she wanted to make a positive difference. Karen realized that she was making a difference, one child at a time. Karen was once again able to see the vision for the clinic.

Sometimes it is difficult for nurses involved in daily patient care to understand their contribution to the overall mission. Great leaders will highlight accomplishments that support the organizational vision. The vision will not happen without the efforts of the front-line nurses.

Failure as life lessons

Every great leader has experienced failure. Each failure can produce a better understanding of how to reach the goal, but it takes a lot of tenacity. Although Disney’s earliest films are considered by many to be masterpieces, such as Pinocchio and Fantasia, they were financial failures. Yet, Walt Disney persisted in his efforts and laid the foundation for the Disney entertainment giant today. Steven King’s first novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times before it was finally accepted and published. This perseverance led to King’s breakout career. Steve Jobs had many personal and professional failures, which resulted in him being kicked out of his own company. But Jobs rebounded when he moved back into a leadership position at Apple to produce breakthrough products—the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

Periods of failure are never fun, but they can be great learning experiences to mold even better leaders. Each failure is one step closer to gaining success.

Selected references

Inc. (2015, October 21). Re Inspirational Lessons From the Failures of 4 Great Leaders [Web log comment]. www.inc.com/jayson-demers/inspirational-lessons-from-the-failures-of-4-great-leaders.html

Maxwell JC. Think on These Things: Meditations for Leaders: 30th Anniversary Edition. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press; 2010.

Thomas BP. Abraham Lincoln: A Biography. New York: Southern Illinois University Press; 2008.

Vicki Hughes is an associate professor, department of nursing, in the College of Health Sciences, Appalachian University, Boone, North Carolina.

3 Comments. Leave new

  • Terrance Carson
    August 5, 2021 9:28 pm

    This article was very much needed at this point in my life. After not working for over a year and half now, regardless of the impact of the Corona virsus, seeing others find, enjoy or maintain their financial means, it is easy to loose hope, but, if nothing but to show me the other side of the coin, I am not and have not been the only one to view life from this perspective. Thank you for sharing these words of inspiration and wisdom.

  • I like the summarization of why failure occurs & how to rebound from failure. I will share this article. Nicely done!

  • Valeria Ann Zimmerman
    August 8, 2017 11:56 am

    Very real article. Love that I can relate to all the areas and learn from this.


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