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Leadership and Failure – Lessons for Life and Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Stephen R. Rolandi
March 27, 2023

“Ut est rerum omnium magister usus”* (*translation: “Experience is the best teacher”) – Julius Caesar

“Failure is a great teacher and, if you are open to it, every mistake has a lesson to offer.” – Oprah Winfrey             

Being that it is mid-term season at many colleges and universities—a time that brings along the usual exam jitters and anxiety, which is a normal reaction—I thought this might be a good time to explore the issue of failure as it relates to leadership and public administration.

Leadership has increasingly become the focus of attention in literature and research on management and executive education in recent years. The subject of leadership has also generated growing attention among scholars and practitioners in public administration, and indeed, leadership is considered to be among the core concepts in public administration scholarship. And of course, the subject of leadership (or a lack of leadership) among executives and managers often finds its way into political discourse and election campaigns.

Related to leadership is the concept of failure. Failure can be defined as not achieving a desired or intended mission, goal, objective, duty or expected action. It is seen oftentimes as the opposite of success and depends on a state of affairs or belief system; failure can also refer to an insufficiency i the quantity or quality of something tangible—such as a failure in a career, marriage, business undertaking, relationship, etc.

During the 19th century in the United States the concept of failure changed—early on during the 1800s, failure was understood as an event or an occurrence in a person’s life. However, at the eve of the Civil War (1861-65), failure was seen as a deficiency in one’s character or morals. Many people at some point in their lives experience what is referred to in the medical profession as atychiphobia, commonly known as a fear of failure.

International author, engineer, negotiator and business executive Alaa Eldin Ragab identified 12 major causes of leadership failure in a 2017 article written for The Inspiring Journal:

  1. Inability to organize detail, thus admitting an inability to do a job or function effectively;
  1. Unwillingness to do what they would ask another to do, as the occasion demands;
  1. Expectation of pay/compensation for what they know instead of what they do;
  1. Fear of competition from others, trying to hold staff below executives and managers at a certain level of competency, instead of improving their competencies;
  1. Lack of creative (“outside the box”) thinking in setting goals, objectives and creating plans;
  1. The “I” syndrome – personally claiming all the honors for a team’s achievements;
  1. Over-indulgence, destroying an organization’s endurance and vitality;
  1. Displaying disloyalty to colleagues and fellow employees, resulting in loss of respect;
  1. Emphasis on the “authority of leadership” (I alone decide/do not question my authority), leading by instilling fear instead of encouraging and empowering staff;
  1. Emphasis on one’s title instead of knowledge and expertise;
  2. Failure (reluctance) to face possibilities of negative reality (no Plan B/C);
  1. Being ultra-positive, or displaying a lack of common sense.

Many articles that I have read on this subject indicate that failure among leaders and executives is more common than one may think. I am fond of reminding students and colleagues that many successful people in government and politics (George Washington; Abraham Lincoln; Barack H. Obama), celebrities (Madonna; Lady Gaga), inventors (Thomas Edison; Albert Einstein) and others  (Vera Wang; Claude Monet; Maya Angelou) all failed at some major point earlier in their respective careers and went on to achieve later successes.

Some other things you may want to consider if you experience failure at a job or on a project, or when considering another set back early in your career:

  • Having conversations that hold the greatest likelihood of getting you to your ultimate outcome in terms of your future, and not the past;
  • Stop obsessing over your prior mistakes—sometimes called overthinking or rumination—which is not only unpleasant, but also related to poor problem-solving;
  • Realize that while it is an act of integrity to apologize for your past mistakes or failures (particularly in a managerial situation), you will only rebuild trust among your staff if you correct the behavior or issue that created the failure;
  • Sometimes, one must balance a dogged streak of being determined with a sense of realism. There will be times when managers, entrepreneurs and other professionals must accept the fact that despite their best efforts, an idea or business venture cannot be saved. The maxim “cut one’s losses” has appeal here.

Finally, changing how we think about failure may also help to reduce one’s feelings about fear. Fear is part of life (it happens to the best of us) and provides an important opportunity to learn about different things and acquire new skills.

I look back upon my own life and career as instructive; when I was in college, I saw law school and a legal career as my best path to government and public service. When that did not work out for me, I turned to public administration which has been very rewarding and fulfilling for me.

My late parents used to tell my brothers and I: “when one door closes, another one opens.” This was useful advice which I now gladly impart on my students and colleagues. Learn from failure, and do not let it defeat you.

For further reading:

The Harvard Business Review (HBR.org) published a special issue in the Summer of 2022 “How to Recover from Failure” reprinting a number of previously published articles; see also “Leadership in the Public Sector: A meta-analysis of styles, outcomes, contexts and methods,” written by Leonie Backhaus and Rick Vogel, appearing in Public Administration Review (PAR), Volume 82, Issue 6 January/February 2022)

Author: Stephen R. Rolandi retired in 2015 after serving with the State and City of New York. He holds BA and MPA degrees from New York University, and studied law at Brooklyn Law School. He teaches public finance and public management as an Adjunct Professor of Public Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) and Pace University. Professor Rolandi is a Trustee of NECoPA; President-emeritus of ASPA’s New York Metropolitan Chapter and past Senior National Council Representative. He has  served  on many  association boards in Washington, DC and New York, and is a frequent guest commentator on  public affairs and political issues affecting the nation and New York State. You can reach him at:  [email protected] or [email protected]  or  914.441.3399 or 212.237.8000.

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