The October 2, 2006 issues of Fortune carried a story on Google. It included a report of a mistake made by one of their vice-presidents, Sheryl Sandberg, that cost the company several million dollars. When she went to apologize to Larry Page, one of Google’s founders, he said “I’m so glad you made this mistake . . . If we don’t have any of these mistakes, we’re just not taking enough risk.” (Adam Lashinsky, “Chaos by Design,” p.44)
This “positive” view of failure seems to be part of the wisdom now emerging in the world of management. Leadership gurus James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner have a whole chapter in their new book, A Leader’s Legacy, entitled “Failure Is Always an Option” (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2006)
As always, principles have a context. If you were piloting a space shuttle or performing open heart surgery, yes, failure is not an option. And neither do you use a principle like “failure is always an option” as an excuse to be careless and to not do your best.
Still, failure is a reality of life. What folks like Page, Kouzes and Posner are doing is not so much celebrating failure as such. What they are doing is reminding us of the tremendous pedagogical power of failure.
In their classic book on leadership, The Leadership Challenge (3rd Edition), Kouzes and Posner write:
“To be sure, failure can be costly. For the individual who leads a failed project, it can mean a stalled career or even a lost job. For an adventurous leader, it can mean the loss of personal assets. For mountain climbers and other physical adventurers, it can mean injury or death.
It is, however, absolutely essential to take risks. Over and over again, people in our study tell us how important mistakes and failures have been to their success. Without those experiences, they would have been unable to achieve their aspirations. It may seem ironic but many echo the thought that the overall quality of work improves when people have a chance to fail. Studies of the innovation process make the point: ‘Success does not breed success. It breeds failure. It is failure that breeds success””
(San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2002, p.213-214).
For “failure to breed success” however, the one who failed has to reflect on his or her failure and learn from it. This is the way of Wisdom. In books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, we see the authors meditating on what they had gone through, and learning from it.
Followers of Christ will also realize that God’s revelation, the bible, provides the parameters and truth base for all authentic reflection. They will insist that if the failure is moral in nature, there must be the requisite confession, repentance and restitution. But they will understand that God’s heart is restorative, not punitive (Galatians 6:1-3).
To enable “failure to breed success” also requires communities that are committed to a redemptive agenda. What do you do with people who have failed? In your company? In your family? In your church? Which brings us to the strange career of John Mark.
We first encounter him in Acts 15:36-41, where we learn he has failed big time. He is a deserter who left his team mates in the lurch. He had ” . . . deserted them (Paul and Barnabas) in Pamphylia, and had not continued with them in the work.” (V.38, TNIV) His failure must have been so bad that Paul didn’t want to risk taking him on a mission trip again. Barnabas disagreed and this led to a violent quarrel between the two leaders.
But Paul could not have been completely closed to a redemptive agenda because when we next encounter John Mark in the New Testament, we find Paul acting as his advocate, encouraging the churches to accept him. Paul writes: “My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)” (Colossians 4:10 TNIV)
It is understandable that by then John Mark has picked up a bad reputation and is therefore viewed with suspicion by some of the churches. Paul here is part of God’s redemptive agenda, fighting for John Mark and his ministry to be accepted and welcomed.
Because John Mark learns from his mistakes and because there were those like Barnabas and Paul committed to his restoration, he blossoms to be a key leader in the church. Paul has this to say about him in 2 Timothy, a letter written when Paul thought he was about to die. “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” (2Timothy 4:11 TNIV)
There were so many people in Paul’s circle of friends and coworkers. But it is Mark that he wants because Mark has proven to be particularly helpful in Paul’s ministry. Failure, properly handled, has bred “success.”
I am drawn to the story of John Mark because I also have a number of spectacular failures in my CV. There were many times when I wanted to give up. I will always be grateful to those took the risk to help restore me. There were not many. There were more who kept me at arms length fearing perhaps that my failure would infect others. But there were the few who understood God’s redemptive agenda and allowed themselves to be used by God to help rebuild my life and ministry.
Today, when someone is touched by something I said or wrote, and ask me as to how I am so “wise.” my answer, and I mean every word of it, is, “I have made many mistakes.” I should add that I am who I am because there were those who loved me enough, and who were wise enough, to help me see that my mistakes did not mean the end of my ministry. Indeed, in the hands of God, they were the beginning.