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What is Failure-Tolerant Leadership?

Updated on October 12, 2012

Who are the most successful people? What are the most successful organizations? It is likely the ones who have made the most mistakes. Ironically, the most successful individuals and organizations may be the one's who made the most mistakes. This may be so because thee ones who made the most mistakes are likely to the one's who kept brushing off failure to try again.

Failure-Tolerant Leadership is a leadership style that coordinates an organizational culture in which follower-subordinates are free to try to fail and try again. Leaders who adopt the Failure-Tolerant approach realize that innovation is the key to capturing and or retaining a sustainable competitive advantage. Organizations that fail to innovate become restricted by obsolete products and services and are sure to become irrelevant in the market place. This hub discusses the concept of Failure-Tolerant leadership.

Thomas Edison

As he doggedly pursued his inventions, Thomas Edison endured repeated failure before achieving life changing innovations.
As he doggedly pursued his inventions, Thomas Edison endured repeated failure before achieving life changing innovations. | Source

Roots of Failure Tolerant Leadership

Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes wrote about the Failure-Tolerant Leader in an article posted to the Harvard Business Review in August 2002. Through their observations, Farson and Keyes noticed that most individuals are afraid to venture out to try new things because they have an inherent of embarrassment or potential reprisal. Failure-Tolerant Leaders are those demonstrate an ability to move their follower-subordinates beyond those fears. In this way, they create a culture of intelligent risk that leads to sustained innovation in terms of new products and services.

Alexander Graham Bell

Inventer of the Telephone, Alexander Graham Bell wrote in his journal "After innumerable failures I finally uncovered the principle for which I was searching."
Inventer of the Telephone, Alexander Graham Bell wrote in his journal "After innumerable failures I finally uncovered the principle for which I was searching." | Source

Characteristics of Failure-Tolerant Leadership

Farson and Keyes argued that failure-tolerant leaders can be characterized as thise who

  • Alleviate fear of failure through supportive words and actions
  • Do not merely accept failure, but encourage it
  • Identify and dismantle barriers that separate them from their followers
  • Interact with their subordinates at a personal level
  • Openly share their own mistakes and failures
  • Root out destructive competitveness that stifles collaboration
  • Push their people to look passed common ideas about failure
  • Inspire creativity and innovation

What Failure-Tolerant Leadership is not?

Even though failure-tolerant leaders encourage risk-taking and failure, one should not think that they are not concerned with sloppy or negligent work. As such Failure-Tolerant leadership should not be confused with Laissez Faire leadership. These leaders remain engaged in the affairs of their staff and closely monitor their progress. Leaders who encourage risk-taking, innovation, and creativity do not micromanage, but do continue to take responsibility for the outcomes of their organizations. More than that, these leaders stay abreast of the msitakes and failures so they can learn from them. Farson and Keyes noted that Failure-Tolerant Leaders ask probing questions about each failure in order to learn from them.


Business organizations extend their livelihood and promote growth when they are able to provide products and services that are relevant to the prevailing market. Innovation is the key to remaining relevant in the marketplace. Failure-Tolerant Leaders inspire creativity by actively encouraging failure in order to learn what will succeed in the marketplace.


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