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Q:  If experimenting is so essential to leadership, how can I create an atmosphere where experimenting and learning really flourishes?

A:  Thomas Edison said, “I failed my way to success.” It took over five thousand experiments to develop the filament for the electric bulb. “Every one of these experiments taught me something,” explained Edison, and that’s precisely the mantra of leaders. Leaders don’t see failures and mistakes as the end of the world, but simply another opportunity to learn and know something that they didn’t know before, and, often, had no way of knowing in advance. The point is that so many of us have gotten the message that “failure is not an option” or we need to “get it right the first time”. But experience shows us that things actually don’t happen that way. It’s the leader’s job to counteract that negative, counterproductive message.

That said, the key to creating an environment where risk taking and experimenting can truly happen is somewhat paradoxical. We contend that risk taking is directly related to the extent to which people feel safe. If you want to help people extend themselves beyond their comfort zones and “the way we’ve always done it around here,” you’ve got to do things that make them feel safe, for example, reducing the cost of failure, expanding the benefits of trying, taking one step at a time, going first yourself (so that if anyone is to look foolish, it will be you), providing practice opportunities, establishing pilot and demonstration projects, and so on. 

Barry Posner is the Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, where he served as Dean of the school for 12 years. Together with Jim Kouzes, he is author of The Leadership Challenge—now in its fifth edition—and over a thirty other books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development.

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