The Next Faithful Step

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Extraordinary Leaders Focus on their Failures

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

We would expect that the best way to prevent delayed damage is to acknowledge failure and to work to eliminate it. The organizational scholar David Nygren found this to be exactly what happens. He did a study of religious leaders to find out what separated good-but-not-great ones from extraordinary ones. And he found that the difference is that extraordinary leaders have the ability to learn from failure. Nygren coordinated a complicated and comprehensive study of outstanding leaders in religious nonprofit organizations.  He looked at a group of professionals similar to the group Chris Argyris studied. Only Nygren asked what characteristics distinguished the very best ones.  The key to the study was an interview that requires two or three hours of conversation with an interviewer. A researcher (in this case, Nygren) interviews a large body of leaders from throughout the organization or similar organizations (say, the leaders of Roman Catholic religious orders or top administrators in religious hospitals). The leaders have been nominated as either good or outstanding leaders by their peers, but when Nygren does the interviews he does not know which leaders are considered good and which are extraordinary. He simply interviews them so that he and his colleagues can analyze their answers. The purpose of the study is to use the answers to show how outstanding leaders see the world differently.1 

I remember listening to Nygren describe the most striking thing about one such study.2 He got to the point where he could guess who the outstanding leaders were going to be before he'd seen the peer nominations. All he had to do was listen to their answers to the two sets of questions that are the staple the interview. He'd ask first, "Tell me about a time you were effective at work." Then he'd ask the opposite question, about a time that the leader had been ineffective. Then they'd repeat the cycle, discussing first a success and then a moment of failure. The interview plays on how the leaders describe these situations of success and failure. I remember Nygren saying, however, that there was something interesting in the interviews. I would have thought that the best leaders had the most successes and the worst ones reported the most failures. But it was just the opposite. That's how Nygren could tell the difference before seeing the peer nominations. The very-best leaders had the most difficulty thinking of a recent event where they had been particularly effective.   Meanwhile, the most average leaders could think of lots of successes but few failures.

Nygren drew an important lesson from this observation. He said that the difference had to do with how the leaders reported the events and not with the situations themselves. It had to do with how leaders see their own work. A good-as-opposed-to-best leader would describe a situation that was a mixture of good and bad, and pronounce it a success. The best leaders would see the mixture as a failure. Let me illustrate what I mean. Say the leader accomplished what he set out to do but stepped on some toes along the way. The good-not-great leader would conclude, "I had to mend some fences, but in the end I got the job done." It's a success. The best leaders, by contrast, might report, "In the end, I'm not very satisfied with what happened. I may have got the result I wanted, but I had to mend a lot of fences when all was said and done. There has to be a way to accomplish this particular goal without hurting people. Next time, I'll have to do a better job monitoring people's feelings." Can you see the difference? The difference is not that the best leaders are pessimists. The difference is that the best leaders are never satisfied with their performance. They have a deep-seated longing to get better. The good-but-not-great leader never noticed the opportunity to improve—never acknowledged the weakness embedded in the story about strength. But the excellent leader did not miss the opportunity to get better.

1 Nygren describes one such study in David J. Nygren, Miriam D. Ukeritis, David C. McClelland, and Julia L. Hickman, "Outstanding Leadership in Religious Nonprofit Organizations: Leadership Competencies in Roman Catholic Religious Orders," Nonprofit Management & Leadership 4:4 (Summer 1994) 375-391.

2 I have heard Nygren present this material twice, both under the auspices of the Yale Program on Non-Profit Organizations. The first one was in Washington, D.C., at Catholic University in 1999. The second was in Chicago in September 2000. The reflections that follow are from my notes on those two wonderful presentations.