#FailureIsAwesome – Lessons Learned from Failure

If you were asked to share your greatest failures with me, you may wonder what I was up to. I know that if I shared mine with you that we’d have a lot to discuss. Some people are reluctant to share failures thinking that they might appear weak or perhaps they were poor leaders or managers.

I view failure as a necessary byproduct of life, and an important part of learning and maturing. You’re probably familiar with the Thomas Edison quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” as he referred to his myriad light bulb experiments.

For more than a decade I have coached and consulted hundreds of nonprofit leaders as they launched new projects. Below are a few examples of “failures” and the lessons that can be learned.

  1. Volunteers are great, except when they’re not. Volunteers should be well oriented and properly supervised. One organization had a volunteer commit forgery. This resulted in stolen grant money, broken trust, police involvement and other painful details. While this organization was dealing with a very unsavory character, there was too much freedom, and lack of procedures and proper oversight on the part of the leadership. In the end, the board took time to evaluate the entire situation, rebuild their system of checks and balances, and came back stronger than ever.
  2. If You Build It They Will Come…And Other Myths. Many organizations believe this notion from the movie, Field of Dreams. Even the most well-intentioned, groundbreaking ideas need thoughtful planning and smart execution to succeed. In addition, I’ve seen great ideas receive very little response due to a lack of listening to the community’s true needs.
  3. The Founder’s Dilemma. Some nonprofit founders have a difficult time leaving or transitioning to a new role due to their strong sense of “fatherly ownership”. My experience shows that founders may see the organization as “their baby” even though they might not be great builders or sustainers. Discussions early-on, about succession planning can be prudent to help organizations grow and thrive if their needs grow beyond the founder’s leadership capacity.
  4. One Horse Wagon. Relying too much on one major donor can result in a variety of difficult circumstances. What if the donor becomes unhappy with the needed direction or simply is drawn to other interests? This can also result in the leaders not even attempting to develop diverse sources of revenue to sustain them for the long haul. Having diverse revenue streams will greatly reduce the chances of the organization becoming vulnerable to the departure of a single donor.
  5. I’ve Got Your Back...Unless. I consulted with a faith-based ministry where dedicated and talented volunteers invested hours of service in building the ministry, only to be surprised that the senior leadership of the congregation didn’t “have their back” when difficult situations arose. Starting a new ministry will create demands on time, space, budgets, emotions, etc. Please take the time to discuss the far-reaching implications with the leaders and stakeholders before launching the project. While all implications cant’ be foreseen, many can and should be discussed.

These are real-world examples of how leaders ended up in difficult spots due to unforeseen circumstance. In most of the situations we encounter, people are able to “make good out of bad”, but occasionally these situations can cause the demise of an organization, even with the best of intentions.


This blog shares my perspective on how we have the ability to create new endings to our stories that are meaningful, powerful and filled with hope. I facilitate transformational change processes helping organizations achieve maximum mission impact. Also, I provide leadership coaching to help executives and aspiring leaders become the fullest expression of who they’re intended to be. @beckerbits   www.leadersedge.me