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Leadership Lessons Learned: The Blessing of Failure

Written by Dr. Dena Counts, Assistant Dean of the College of Graduate and Professional Studies

Our God is more about the process of building us in His image rather than the victories of our success. And, this truth applies to our growth in leading others, where failure can teach us about ourselves and refine our leadership skills. The truth is that leadership is an evolutionary process. The more we see leadership as a learning opportunity, the better leader we will be at work, church, volunteer opportunities, and home.

A Lesson from Moses

Let’s consider Moses, a man who learned not only the leadership lessons of the world but those taught to him by God. Moses knew from childhood that God had something special in store for him. Raised by his Hebrew mom but adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses learned about the history of the Jewish people and the culture of the Egyptians. As a Prince of Egypt, he had lessons in war, culture, and administration; he was groomed to be a leader. But, Moses knew he was of the Hebrew people, and scripture infers that he knew his destiny was to lead his fellow Israelites. However, Moses tried to step into his destiny before he was ready. In Exodus 2, Moses tries to save a Hebrew slave that was being beaten by an Egyptian and as a result kills the Egyptian. After this tragedy, Moses’ fellow Hebrews asked, “Who made you a prince and judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian” (Exodus 2:14)? And, once Pharoah heard of the murder, Moses had to flee the country. Moses ran and hid in Midian – where God continued the other parts of Moses’ leadership training, preparing Moses for the moment when he would lead his Hebrew relations out of the Egyptian slavery. 

The Lord may not intend you to lead an entire people out of slavery. But, if God has put you in a place of leadership, He does care about the process of developing you as His type of leader. Unfortunately, much of our work experiences assume that we are a leader or we are not – rather than embracing the process of growth – a process that refines us to be what God intends us to be.

Like Moses, I have had my moments of failure. But, our Lord has shown me that the lesson is in the process not in the leadership victory. At one time in my professional career, I served as a Speech and Debate coach. I would travel the country with a squad of 6-12 university students as they competed in public speaking and debate. The students were brilliant, driven, and typical 18-22 year-olds who were figuring out how they fit in this world. Unfortunately, I led them as I would like to be led – I tend to be an employee that says, “Just tell me what to do, leave me alone, and I’ll get it done.” So, I would clearly communicate what needed to be done, by when, and then just expect adherence to my directions. But, I didn’t acknowledge that we all come into our work with different levels of skills and needs as employees. My students were the same. Some needed more specific technical help. Others needed more emotional support. Looking back, I wish I had been more adaptive in my leadership.

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive Leadership (as originated by Heifetz in 1994), a more follower-centered theory, indicates that the leader can take six actions to help employees adapt to technical or adaptive challenges of the company system. A technical challenge might be helping an employee navigate the processes of getting a computer repaired or connecting them with a co-worker to figure out how to change benefits. Adaptive challenges are more nebulous and more difficult to navigate, as, “… they usually require changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, roles, and values” (Northouse, 2021). So, an adaptive challenge might look like a leader coaching a manager on how to not micro-manage other employees, providing feedback, mentoring, and guidance. Also, there are some challenges for a leader that have both technical and adaptive components.

Heifetz indicated that leaders can respond to these challenges by navigating six actions: get on the balcony, defining adaptive problems, managing distress, taking disciplined attention, giving work back to employees, and protecting leadership voices at the lower levels (as cited in Northouse, 2021). And, I try to add a Christian-focused perspective to this adaptive process. I practice the balcony view in times of distress by asking God for His perspective on the challenge, asking what He is doing in this situation. Plus, I ask that He give me a hearing heart for His wisdom so that I can give attention to what He wants me to give attention to. I’m not perfect at this process, but God is teaching me His perspective on leadership just like He did for Moses.

Considering my work with the Speech and Debate team, I wish I could have practiced a holier lens of Adaptive Leadership. I wish I had more effectively stepped back from problems (taking the balcony view) and looked for those that were more technically oriented (needing to learn how to do research or learning how to follow debate structure). Or, I could have monitored those that were adaptive (addressing student fears, navigating conflict between debaters, addressing pride versus a servant perspective). More importantly, I wish I had done all of this with God’s lens on my work and challenges.

Letting God Refine You

Now as the Program Director of the B.S. in Organizational Leadership as well as the B.S. in Organizational Communication and Assistant Dean of the College of Graduate and Professional Studies, I have the opportunity to continue to refine my leadership skills. LIke Moses’ story, I try to acknowledge daily that this is a leadership skill-building journey for me and that God is more interested in His development and refining of me rather than my leadership success. But, as He refines me, He enables me to pour into His peace and wisdom into others as a reflection of His glory. The submission to His refining brings the benefits of patience, character, faith, and hope – all rewards that are fuller than those of the world.

You may be on a similar leadership journey that I am on. Maybe God is calling you to be a leader in your workplace, volunteer organization, church, or family. However, you know that this is a journey of development where the victory is in following God. Our Bachelor of Science in Organizational Leadership gives students the opportunities to refine their leadership skills so that they are a blessing to those around them. If you would like to join us on this journey of development, take the first step today.

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