Smart Leaders Know That Letting People Fail Can Help Them Improve and Grow

John Hollon Business Development, Career Advice, Coaching, Culture, Leadership, Learning, Learning and Development, Managing People 2 Comments

Raising children isn’t easy. Leading people is equally as challenging.

In a lot of ways, leadership is very similar to raising a child. The big goal is to build people who are self-sufficient and self-reliant, but the trick is knowing just how much help you should give along the way.

Although it seems to be improving, LinkedIn has a mixed record as a good source of thoughtful management or leadership advice, but an article they published a couple of years ago by Julie Winkle Giulioni was good because she got into the most common mistakes that leaders make, and the notion that it can also be a problem if you’re giving too much help to employees as they try to find their own way.

Are some leaders like helicopter parents?

Julie Giulioni wrote, in part:

“Some leaders err by commission — actively undertaking acts that undermine team or organizational success. Others err by omission — failing to do something that’s necessary. But there’s another group of leaders who, with the best of intentions, may do the most damage of all. These are the leaders who err by whoa-mission. (“Whoa,” as in the command riders use to pull a horse back, slow it down, or make it stop.

These well-meaning leaders make a significant mistake and ultimately thwart staff development and sub-optimize their teams in the process. As counterintuitive as it may seem, this happens not because they are doing too little but because they are doing too much.

Not unlike helicopter parents who get in the way of their children growing, learning and becoming independent, these managers who err by whoa-mission cultivate in their employees’ low self-efficacy, lack of initiative, compromised capacity and a debilitating sense of dependence — all because they do too much.”

This is an interesting concept — leaders who do too much for their employees. But if you think of it like raising children, it makes a lot of sense because the problem is pretty much the same.

Yes, a leader CAN be too helpful

Parents who always jump in to help their kids out when things get a little rough eventually figure out — although sometimes too late — that doing so only seems to make them more dependent, and it gets in the way of them becoming the independent and self-reliant people they should be.

Giulioni makes this very point, although she doesn’t view it as a parent might:

“A leader who is too helpful can actually leave others helpless. Solving an employee’s problem. Detailing a development plan. Giving step-by-step instructions about how to proceed. These are proactive, caring and supportive efforts on the part of the leader. But they compromise the capacity of others to build problem-solving skills, own their development or learn how to navigate the ambiguity of work.

Being a little less helpful lets employees figure things out for themselves, struggle, fail (and even discover that it’s not fatal), and come to depend upon themselves and their capacity.”

Sometimes, it helps to let people fail

Here’s my take: Julie Giulioni is spot on when it comes to leadership and employee development.

A leader who is too helpful can actually leave others helpless, just as a parent can with a child, and the best leaders understand this dynamic and make sure they only jump in when they are truly needed.

In fact, this is a classic example of the importance of letting people “fail” on occasion so they can learn from the experience and improve themselves because of it.

I have always believed that people need to “fail” if they are to truly grow, and that the greatest and most meaningful learning experiences usually come from those times when things don’t go very well. It’s something every leader should embrace — and they need to make sure they get their teams to embrace it, too.

Want to build better employees who will take smart risks? Letting them fail on occasion, and having them learn from their failure, is a good way to get there.

Remember this if you’re a leader: Ignore this at your own peril.

John Hollon

John Hollon is an award-winning journalist and nationally recognized expert on leadership, talent management, and smart workforce practices. He currently is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media. He also was founding Editor of the popular talent management website TLNT.com, and before that, Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com.
John also held editing positions at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and the Orange County Register, and was top editor for Gannett at two statewide papers —Montana’s Great Falls Tribune and The Honolulu Advertiser. He also has deep experience in magazine and online publishing as editorial director at Fancy Publications, VP of Editorial at Pets.com, and Editor of the San Diego Business Journal.
In addition, John is an adjunct professor in the College of Communications at California State University, Fullerton, and a board member at the Kronos Workforce Institute. He holds an MBA from Pepperdine University’s Graziado School of Business & Management, and lives in Southern California.

Comments 2

  1. Excellent article! I have had to learn to take a step back and let my subordinates fail. Initially, I had concerns when entrusting other with tasks that I would have to sign my name to. However, letting them learn by themselves has led to me receiving projects which greatly exceeded my expectations. Of course, there will be failures, but the good far outweighs the bad!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *