This week I’m kicking off the first of a four-part series that I’m calling “Favorite Fails.” In June and July I’ll be addressing common questions about how Humans at Work™ can use mistakes as teaching tools. This week’s Q&A details how one leader’s “failure” could become an invaluable gift to those coming up behind him.

Dear Dr. Graham:

I’m a senior manager midway through a series of credentialing exams. Due to their difficulty, my company considers these exams optional. However, leaders who pass these exams are awarded our industry’s highest professional accreditation.

I guess I shouldn’t have, but I told the people I supervise that I’m taking these exams. Since then each of them has asked me how it was going. My team even took me to lunch after I passed the first one, telling me how much they admired me for doing this at such a busy time in my life. But I just found out that I failed the second one. I’m already studying to take it again, but I don’t know what to tell my team. I don’t want them to consider their manager a failure. What should I do?

Embarrassed Leader

Dear Embarrassed,

First, you should know that I agree with your employees. I’m impressed by your commitment to this process in the midst of your incredibly busy life. Second, I’m glad that you told your team you were taking these tests, for reasons I’ll explain below. Finally, I think you should reconsider your embarrassment. I don’t see your “didn’t pass” experience as a failure. Instead, I’d call it your first “learning attempt.” Now you know what to expect from this exam and how to prepare for it next time.

I’m glad you told your team that you’re taking the tests, because now your experience can become a teaching tool. You now have the opportunity to show your team how important it is to be vulnerable as a leader. You’re allowing the people who follow you to see you as real, not perfect.

So many leaders feel they have to be perfect to progress. But the reality is that every leader experiences failures. Everyone stumbles on their way to success. I encourage you to share the fact that you didn’t pass this test, because my guess is that you’ll get a lot of respect and support from your team. The people you supervise are much more likely to feel closer to you when they realize you aren’t perfect. (When you think about the people to whom you feel most connected, my bet is that you know both the good and the bad about them.)

So many people think the leaders they admire have easily stepped from milestone to milestone because those leaders were unwilling to share the reality of their journey. If you are willing to share this experience as what I call a “Human at Work™,” you’ll be able to use this “failure” as a leadership tool. You’ll be modeling the value of perseverance when you take this exam as many times as it takes to succeed.

As you consider how to talk about this with your team, please accept my congratulations, not just for working toward a goal that is meaningful to you, but also for being yourself as you lead.

I invite you to join my Facebook Group: Lead at a Higher Level to interact with me directly. I launched the group as a space for having broader conversations around leadership. Joining the group gives you access to me and to a cohort of fellow leaders who are passionate, innovative, and focused on sharpening their leadership skills and furthering their careers.  I’d love for you to join us!

Have a question you’d like answered? You may submit questions for me to address in future newsletters here.

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