How I Failed …

One of my LinkedIn connections wrote a post recently to challenge us to do something different, so that we can be in our growth zone.

After reading, I decided to share a story of my leadership failure. This is not something I will naturally do, especially since the culture I am in does not celebrate failures openly. By doing this, I hope it will help me learn to be comfortable with my own skin.

The Story Begins

This incident took place quite a few years ago.

I was a newly minted leader, with a number of colleagues reporting to me. Some were younger than me, but many were older, and more experienced than me in my line of business.

As the organisation is fairly hierarchical, the staff will usually follow the instructions I give. Missing deadlines, submitting work of lower quality, or failing to carry out the roles with fidelity are common, but not fatal. I try to understand, and exercise a bit of sympathy and flexibility, as my colleagues’ work is not easy.

What I lack in experience, I try to make up for it in terms of effort and energy. I try to stay on top of things, and keep myself informed of what is happening at the ground. After all, through the management literature I had been reading, being on the ground is important in getting a sensing of what went wrong and what was going well.

People slowly bucked up, and tried to meet what management required them to do.

Everything was going smoothly in the first year or so. With the help of my boss, I managed a number of issues and matters, and handled a number of things fairly fine. I thought I was running the organization fairly effectively.

That happened to be the wrong thinking.

Bruised Ego

One morning, I handled a student who had committed a serious offence. The consequence I gave was detention for a specified period of time on that day. The day passed by fairly quickly, like any other day.

My phone rang shortly after school was dismissed. It was the student’s father. He wanted to know where his child was.

I told him that his child is serving detention for an offence, and will be released at a certain time. The father acknowledged the message, and hung up.

Somehow, I started to wonder if the student was actually serving detention. So I sent a message to the teacher in charge, and asked to see him.

He came to my office, and upon asking, told me that he had released the student from detention! Worse, the student had already left school.

Needless to say, I was utterly horrified. Horrified that I now have a student who was supposed to serve detention, but was now somewhere outside of school. Horrified that I had replied to the student’s father very confidently over the phone that the student was still in school, and that he will come chasing after me if he found out what had happened. Horrified that my teacher chose to act without consulting me, and was even nonchalant about it when he told me the news.

I lost my cool.

I raised my voice, and chided him for not checking in with me, for releasing the student without completing the detention, and for the lack of communication between the parent, myself and him.

Let’s just say I was loud enough that others in the general office could hear me.

I sent him out of the office with instructions to search for the student and contact the father to provide the latest updates. I told him to report to me after he had established where the student was, and after contacting the father.


My teacher reported to me shortly after, that the student was fine, and he was playing basketball nearby. He had also contacted the father and explained what had happened.

Before he left the office, my teacher turned around and told me that he felt he had not done anything wrong, as he was not the one who gave the father the wrong information. He also said that he had decided to release the student early as he was on good behaviour throughout the detention.

Now, whether what my teacher said was right, doesn’t matter.

What mattered was I felt guilty for raising my voice at him, for losing my cool, and for treating my teacher like a student. I felt bad.

I looked for the teacher the next day, and apologised to him for raising my voice at him. I explained that I was anxious that a student has gone missing, and that the school will be held responsible.

He acknowledged my apology. Yet I can see from his eyes that he still had a grudge against me.

I have destroyed the trust between him and me. And the trust was still not recovered when I left the school.

What Did I Learn?

It is obvious that I should not have raised my voice at my teacher. While a student’s fate was hanging in the air, that doesn’t warrant my act of raising my voice at him.

There are some lessons I took away from this episode.

1. Treat Everyone With Respect

All of us come to work everyday wanting to put in our effort, and make the time and effort count. Nobody likes to be scolded or belittled in the workplace. And nobody comes to the workplace looking for blame to be pinned on them.

I am not saying we should condone mistakes, or wrong judgments. What I am saying is when things go wrong, our first instinct should not be to witch-hunt, but to look at resolving the situation first.

That includes treating the people involved with respect, believing that when they make mistakes, they should not be condemned for their deeds. All of us deserve respect and human dignity, no matter what wrong we may have done. To correct the errors and help them understand how to perform better, that we should do still.

2. Respond With Thinking, Not Feeling

When you are placed in a tight spot, it is natural to feel adrenaline rushing in, and cortisol forming in you. The pressure and stress of the situation can push us into a fight or flight decision mode. It will be very natural that we will react and defend ourselves.

Imagine two of your friends quarrelling and about to fight, and you happen to walk by. What will your immediate response be?

I hope you will choose to separate them and urge them to calm down, before finding ways to resolve their conflict.

What we should do when faced with stressful situations is to think first, and feel next.

Thinking about the situation, going through the considerations and implications, will help us to make better decisions. Spending more time thinking over the issue will usually bring about better outcomes, and perhaps raises questions that will help resolve the conflict.

3. Always Find a Way Forward

When we can calm down and have time to think, we will have room to consider how to solve the issue. This is important, because looking at the causes of the problem may not bring about solutions. But looking for solutions will always lead to that – solutions.

This means we ought to embrace an open mindset, and the willingness to explore the issue with the other party in a non-threatening and safe manner. It also means presenting a non-judgmental front so that the other party will be open to find solutions.

4. Build Trust, Maintain Relationships

I think this is the biggest lesson I learnt from this episode, and from reflecting on my leadership stint in that organisation. I was too focused on getting things done, that I forgot that I have people waiting to be led. I was too focused on managing the ship, that I forgot that what people need is not just work, but good relationships to thrive.

In essence, focus on the people, develop them and build trust with them, and the processes and systems will take shape as we journey together.

You cannot Reverse Time

If I have the chance to relive that part of my life, I would have done things differently.

Of course we cannot go back in time. We can, however, review the lessons learnt, and strive to do better in our journey forward. Remembering the lessons can be hard though. I can recall episodes since this incident, when I need to remind myself of these lessons.

I am still human. I still make mistakes. I can be task focused at times, and fail to focus on people.

Yet we must press on, if we want to become a better version of ourselves every day.

Are there any other lessons you feel I should have gleam from this episode? Have you encountered failures and gained similar lessons? Feel free to drop a note and let me know. We can all learn from each other by sharing our stories.

I have written another story of my leadership experiences. You can read it here: Learning to Listen

17 thoughts on “How I Failed …

  1. While I was reading your story, me too worried for the student. In these type of incidents, our mind always thinks the worst things might happen and father of the student would have raised a complain and this is the reason we raise our voice. If I am in your position, I would have done the same things. The tips, you have shared are very nice. We all know the tips still we do the mistakes and feel guilty.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for your comment. I think we need to take a step back in any situation and respond appropriately, rather than react to what we see or hear. That will help us manage ourselves and our relations with our colleagues much better.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the structure of this post; how you started off with a story and you then went on to discuss the lessons you were taught. Love this post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Such an thoughtful, story, you write well, organized and you offer lessons learned from your experience to help other leaders.
    I would like you to have reminded the reader/listener that these are life skills and not only leaders.
    Have you heard of the Cockroach principle as told by a leader at Google?


  5. Thank you for your affirmation. I will strive to write better.
    I have not heard of the cockroach principle. Do you have any reference you can share with me?


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