Learning From Failure

failure     I love to read the Sunday edition of The New York Times. It takes me a whole week to do it. One of the sections I have come to enjoy is the one about business. Each week a business leader is interviewed about their career, what they learned, and how they lead today.

For the past year, every person interviewed seemed to talk about the importance of listening – deeply and generously listening to their employees. Along with the importance of listening skills, and the ability to attract creative and innovative employees, was the absolute necessity of going to where the work was being done and talking to those who were doing it – the front line.

Can policing learn from this? Can police take the “best known practices” and incorporate them into their field? I think so. A number of years ago when leading the Madison, Wisc. police department, I worked to incorporate what I saw to be the best business practices of that day. Many of these practices stuck.

When business leaders talk about failure, they often say that it was a great teacher and without it nothing would have improved in their lives. In fact, the H.R. man at Google recently said that Google was not looking for A+ winners because many of them never had experienced failure in their lives (see my blog on March 2nd — “Why not Google-hire Cops?”)

Google believes that never having failed prevents these never-fails from trying something risky – and the avoidance of failure could be the loss of one of their company’s greatest ideas!

It would be interesting if police publications like The Police Chief were so inclined. For example, to conduct intensive interviews with chiefs that described their failures as well as successes — “What have you learned the hard way?”

I saw such an interview this past week in the Los Angeles Times concerning retired Sheriff Lee Baca. Baca, age 71, said he wasn’t running for office earlier this year after 15 years as the sheriff of Los Angeles County. The interview came last week when he was talking to a number of students at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. It was refreshing.

Robert Faturechi, reporting on Baca’s comments, heard him reply. “’What I’d do differently,” Baca said, “is manage more.” That comment came during a lengthy question-and-answer period in which Baca appeared relaxed after many tumultuous years as the top law enforcement officer in Los Angeles. “The former sheriff said he’s also coming to terms with criticism over his leadership of the department,” he reported, “which has been mired in various scandals including an FBI investigation into inmate abuse… Baca said when he looks back, he realizes he spread himself too thin and should have focused more on the inner workings of the department… ‘It’s amazing how hindsight is always clearer than foresight’…”

“In the years before he retired,” Faturechi noted, “Baca was hit with a slew of problems. Federal prosecutors charged 19 of his current and former deputies as part of an investigation into jailhouse abuse. In the Antelope Valley, Baca’s deputies were involved in searches and detentions that federal authorities said violated the constitutional rights of black and Latino residents. Internal records surfaced showing Baca’s agency hired dozens of applicants even after background investigators discovered histories of serious misconduct. And Baca was accused of cronyism, including launching criminal investigations on behalf of donors.”

[CLICK HERE to read the entire article.]

There are some good lessons here. One of the most important qualities of a police leader is knowing what is going on where it counts – on the street and in the “inner workings” of the department. And the only way a leader can know what is really going on is to be there. Unless this is done, no matter how popular leaders are, no matter how many community events they attend, they will not be effective leaders.

I learned this years ago and I first learned by failure. Mid-career, I came to finally and truly listen to my employees and value them. I learned that what I needed to do was to work to improve the “inside” of the organization — then the “outside.” I needed to begin by asking what needed to be done in order to help the men and women I was privileged to lead do a better job consistent with our shared vision – a job they would take pride in doing.

Here’s some questions to ask when you show up at where the work is being done. I learned this from a business consultant in my city. I encourage you to add them to your repertoire:

  • Tell me about your job?
  • What tasks do you perform most of the time?
  • What do you like best about your job?
  • What do you like best about working here?
  • What do you like least about your job?
  • What do you like least about working here?
  • Have you any suggestions as to what I could do to make it easier for you to do a better job?
  • What prevents you from doing the kind of job that you would take pride in doing?
  • Is there anything that you think I should know about, or be made aware of regarding the work, and the conditions of work around here?
  • Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
  • Are there any questions you would like to ask me?[i]

When I got answers to these questions, my work was cut out for me. My job was to develop, coach, train, and lead leaders who could practice and be the kind of leaders who would be committed to continuously improving things.

We would begin to call them “quality leaders” and what they would practice was “quality leadership;” leaders who were:

  • Competent.
  • Champions – “they walk what they talk.”
  • Fixers and improvers.
  • Visible.
  • Involved.
  • Respected their employees.
  • Willing to take risks.
  • Initiators.
  • In touch.
  • Provided information.
  • Understood and gave support.

You can read more about my learning experience in my recent book. In the meantime, always remember leadership counts – it’s vitally important for you and those around you. Nothing can substitute for it.

Add to this Adam Bryant’s “Corner Office”  interview of  C.E.O. Tom Erickson of Acquia in last Sunday’s business section of The New York Times.

What a leader says, what a leader does, and how a leader spends his or her time is carefully observed and noted by those who look to them for direction.


[i] Thanks to Brian Joiner of Joiner Associates in Madison, Wisc. for this.



  1. The trouble is that in American culture we don’t believe that people have a right to fail and then people get their butts kick in for failing.


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