The best leaders embrace failure as the cornerstone of learning.

Entrepreneurial success increasingly depends on your employees’ willingness to learn. I’m not just referring to your individual contributors who crave professional development. If you want your company to succeed, you need everyone at every level to embrace learning — starting with those at the top.

Now, while these top executives are usually perceived to be the best at "learning," they aren’t usually very good at it.


Well, it’s because actual learning is often at odds with what we see as education. Many people in leadership positions don’t believe that they have more to learn, and that the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that helped them to land the position in the first place are good enough. The key to fixing this problem is a) acknowledging it and b) changing it.

Sound simple?

That’s because it kind of is.

The heart of it is this: Everyone must understand the way they solve problems and how it can actually be a source of more problems, and then learn how to improve their thought processes.

Here are some of the big ways high-powered, successful professionals avoid learning and put their companies at a disadvantage:

  1. They use single-loop instead of double-loop learning. Executives are often the biggest problems with their organization because they rarely experience failure. When they do, they don’t know what to do with it. So when their single loop (x is y, so y is x) strategies fail or are more complex, they don’t know how to move on.

  2. They won’t admit to their mistakes. Often, when leaders are not used to failing, failing can be scary. They fear that this failure can blemish their perfect record, reputation, credibility, authority, or position. This can lead to denial at all costs. Failing to admit to a mistake is a sure dead end to learning.

  3. They blame others. If you won’t blame yourself, you’ll blame the guy next to you — surely, he did it.

Rationalized dysfunction, politicking, defensive reasoning, and passive-aggressive behavior all become prevalent in environments where the executives think they are too smart to learn.

The solution to this problem is a failure-friendly work environment, starting from the very top. If you’re willing to act as if failure is the cornerstone of learning, everyone down the totem pole will embrace learning, too.

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Learn more about Dave and his new book, “Hire Smart From the Start.”

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