When I Allow Someone to Fail and When I Come to the Rescue

It's a delicate balance in leadership

I have often commented that part of my leadership is to create a culture where failure is considered a part of the learning process. It’s okay to fail. As a leader, while it may seem unproductive to some, many times I have watched someone on my team fail. I probably could have stepped in earlier, took control of the project or delegated to someone else more experienced, and saved a failure from happening. I let the failure happen.

Recently, I said something like this at a conference and was questioned afterward. It was a valid question, which went something like this:

I am in the middle of this now and it is tough. Many times I wonder if I should just step in. I am trying to exercise patience. Is there a time you save them from failing?

Great question and that’s a delicate balance. When do you step in and rescue someone and when do you allow the person to possibly fail?

Here is my bottom line response:

The balance for me is in how much the failure will injure them (or the team) versus how much it will teach them (or us).

At times I step in to rescue

Sometimes I can save someone from unneeded heartache. I’m likely to step in an try to help if it wouldn’t teach them as much as it would simply hurt. This includes for them and for the team.

There are failures we can learn without the need to repeat them. When I was in business, I had people give me fair warning about doing business with certain individuals. I was thankful to avoid the pain of those associations. There would be others I couldn’t see coming and would learn on my own and help others avoid the pain.

Also, in business, I learned the secret of making your banker your friend – not your enemy. Unfortunately I learned it the hard way. I have given that piece of advice to dozens of young business owners over the years. That’s a “failure” which impacts the business and everyone in the business.

If the failure is going to derail the progress of everyone on the team, or the recovery is going to be greater than the teaching experience, I’m likely to rescue them.

At times I allow them to fail.

I will admit, this is the harder one, but if I would be stunting the individual’s personal growth by stepping in to rescue them, I may let them fail. Failure is one of life’s greatest educators, so most people grow through trial and error.

If, for example, someone on my team wants to try something new. I may feel it isn’t the best decision, or it isn’t the way I would choose to do it, but I usually can’t guarantee it won’t be a success. Instead of going with my gut, I may let the team member follow his or her gut and take a chance. We may discover a home run and I would happily admit my hunch was wrong. And, either way, it didn’t hurt too much overall, but the individual team member learns something far more valuable which will help them and the team in the future.

Again, the bottom line for me is to discern the greater value –

Growth of a team member by allowing failure, which ultimately helps the overall team.

Or, protecting a team member from needless injury, which could ultimately injure the overall team.

I hope this is helpful in addressing the dilemma. Keep in mind, there are no clear cut lines on leadership issues like this. Every situation is unique. We keep learning and developing in these areas.

Wow, leadership is hard, isn’t it?

How do you decide when to allow someone fail and when to save them the agony?

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24 thoughts on “When I Allow Someone to Fail and When I Come to the Rescue

  1. Hi Ron, My name is Evan Hazlett and I am a senior in High School. As part of my personal finance course, I am required to read a few blogs my teacher find inspirational. Your blog was among this list! I just wanted to say how much I agree with many things you said about leadership. It is always imporant to remeber that everyone fails, even leaders. In order to grow, we need to fail, and make mistakes. Thanks for the great lessons!

  2. I still remember the advice from an older man when my kids were young. He said, "Let them suffer the consequences of failure when they're young, because when they're old, the consequences will be a lot worse." My kids are a lot older now, and through the years I've realized the value of that advice.

  3. The ultimate parent-child relationship to me is God the Father and God the Son. So many times did the Son have questions and so many times did the Father quietly watch His Son’s choices. I think of the 40 days in the desert when the Son battled Satan. Did the Father let him fail? Now, I do believe that God watches over us, but has granted us free will…and that’s where the poor choices come in. Have you ever made a choice that you felt inside maybe wasn’t the best one? I believe that is God the Spirit talking to us, saying to think carefully. Sometimes one of our brothers or sisters are touched enough by Spirit – and not by Snoopiness – to intervene when our free will guides us away from what the Spirit is trying to say. I leave intervention up to Faith.

  4. How do you decide when to allow someone fail and when to save them the agony? Ron! That's a thought provoking question. " When to allow someone to fail and when to rescue " –
    I see this principle used by the parents with their kids. Many parents will be applying this technique without recognizing it. For example, when a child initially tries to walk, it falls down repetitively; Knowing this, the parents want them to walk by learning in this manner. Even if a child falls, the parents encourage it to walk. At the same time, parents ensure that the child will not be seriously injured.
    I think the leader needs to apply this same principle with his team members.

  5. TO ALL HERE: There is much here to respond to, and so much connects to my first short-read/book on Leadership. Just posting a free link here vs trying to respond with so many thoughts. Part II in the book is a 'story' about all these dynamics and how to teach without just allowing failure by 'Teaching Fishin' as Jesus was teaching his disciples how to become Fishers of Men. We as Leaders can do the same in growing people! LINK: Leadership Conversations/Teaching Fishing http://bookertraining.com/teachingfishin%27.pdf

    Love this thought process and conversation Ron, thanks.

    God's best to all

  6. Even as I read the title of your post, I thought of first of this challenge in parenting. Then leading my team second, as in many ways they are very similar. And in either of those cases, for me the answer depends on what the failure would be and how it impacts that person's future. As you said, discerning the impact of the failure is critical to the decision.

    • Thanks. Yea, I thought of the parenting issue too when I wrote the post. I think that's a good analogy.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  7. Hello Pastor, after reading this post, I took a minute to think about times I personally have struggled with the decisions to let people fail or rescue them. After reflecting on several examples I came to the conclusion many failures we experience is a result of not what’s right or wrong but what’s “complete”.

    Let me explain, many people when making decisions either ask for help or don’t. People avoid asking for advice because of the fear of rejection. Nobody likes to have a self generated idea scrutinized by others. They rather fail and maintain their sense of self efficacy than seeking advice from others.

    So what if it’s really not about the best Idea that can prevent failure but it’s about having a “complete “idea developed though multiple perspectives of other people. Then it becomes less about preventing failure and more about expanded a person’s perspective to reduce the risk of failure.
    Another good post Pastor!
    Proverbs 11:4

    • I like this. I certainly like collaboration. I say (and wrote a post about) “collaboration leads to cooperation”. Of course, you can have a whole team do something together and still fail. There's tons of Biblical and secular illustrations of that. I do think it could cut down on the amount of failure though. “Plans fail for the lack of counsel”.Thanks! Good thoughts.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  8. Your response to the question generated by yesterdays post exemplifies the issue.
    Thank you for your example as you mentor us "digital" followers. It is hard to stop and stoop. We are often result oriented; good for goals but challenging in process.
    Investigate from multiple views,
    don't intervene but approach,
    don't isolate the individual.
    Ephesians 1-3 are followed by 4-6. We are 1+1+1+1+1+1=1 God's math says we individually add up to a whole, united, mature, that fullness which belongs to Christ. In my eyes that translates, we are only as strong as the "weakest" link. That is why we come alongside. To build a large firm platform for Christ to be magnified. The cross is the great leveler. Chapter 5 gets specific about those relationships and 6 a warning but the battle is not against flesh.
    Twitter: eccle0412

    • I like this. Good thoughts. I do think about Jesus releasing the disciples to go off on their own though. They seemed to come back with successes and failures. They couldn't cast out a demon (“this kind comes out only by prayer”). The man coming to Jesus even says, “I took him to your disciples, but they couldn't do it.” Then I think of the verse from my message last week, John 12:16. The disciples didn't understand. Jesus didn't make sure they did. If they had, Peter may not have failed by denying Christ. He seemed to let them stand alone with their doubts, but discover the truth later.I still believe there is a great balance here. Great thoughts. Thank you for engaging.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  9. Look forward to seeing more of this leadership topic in the future. This is something that not many authors are speaking about………. but is hugely needed in the development of teams.

    Thanks Ron for writing this …….

  10. I look to see if it is something they can learn from after repeated failures. So maybe down the road I can ask, "How did that work out for you?" but not in a maniacal sort of way – just a question to get them to admit their weakness and seek other routes.

  11. Wow, that's a brilliant insight. I had never approached it from the perspective of what the other person would learn through failure. I had always thought about it as saving them from embarrassment or keeping the wheels rolling on the project. But your words make total sense. Thanks for this!

  12. I feel it may be much easier than we imagine. As a leader we can help guide and assist our team so much without stepping in, taking over or rescuing. It may not always be enough for success to be achieved but it can be enough for any potential failure not to be the employee's burden. In such case we need to remember to take responsibility for our team failure thus protecting them and to give them credit for any success thus encouraging them to even greater achievements.