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How 'Failure Resumes' Can Boost Leadership Development

Having students document their failures is an academic tool used to get students to challenge and stretch themselves. In the corporate world, it can help build better leaders.

February 10, 2012
Related Topics: Leadership Development, Innovation, Leadership Development, Technology
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Traditionally, a resume is written to summarize the professional, academic or personal success of an individual as a means to get a job or be accepted into an educational program or service organization.

But Doug Lynch, vice dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania and the creator of its doctoral program for CLOs, has a different use for the staid document. One of the first things he has students who take his class in entrepreneurship do is create a “failure resume.”

Instead of students listing what colleges or schools they attended, their major and the grade point average they received, he insists that they list all of the schools to which they applied but didn’t get in. The same is done for employment or other professional work experiences; it’s not what you accomplished successfully in these roles, but what you didn’t accomplish — what you failed at.

The idea, Lynch said, is multi-pronged. First, it serves as an icebreaker among students in the course, which requires that they work in teams throughout the term. Second, the failure resume is used as a development tool that forces students to reframe their experiences in a way that highlights potential areas of need.

It’s used “as an intellectual exercise to simply reframe their life through failures and to see what surfaces,” Lynch said. “If you sort of went back and looked at all the jobs you had or all the jobs you were turned down [for]; of all the schools you went to but those [where] you didn’t get accepted; not the person that is the love of your life, but the people you missed out on ... as an exercise it’s just an interesting one.”

“We think that learning how to look at things is a key facet of being effective as a learning leader,” he said. A person’s development can be viewed through his or her failures.

Sim B. Sitkin, professor of management and faculty director for the Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, who has written about learning through both success and what he terms “strategic failures,” said setting stretch goals and targeting potential “small losses” is a means for individuals to spur their professional development. Not doing so, he said, would be a misstep for anyone looking to advance their position — a failure to stretch limits, experiment with new ideas and obtain new leadership skills.

Lynch’s use of a failure resume isn’t entirely novel. A quick Internet search will bring to light examples of others who have suggested or practiced using it as a development exercise. But Lynch’s failure resume isn’t simply a written document: He said part of the exercise is having students stand up in front of the class and recite their failures in speech form. Another one of the course’s learning goals is innovation and public speaking.

The exercise, in the end, ends up “changing the timbre of the class,” Lynch said, because it breaks students out of their comfort zones and has them thinking in multiple dimensions — a valuable trait for a course seeking to teach innovation and leadership.

Leaders need to be concerned with being authentic, Lynch said, and speaking publicly in an open and honest context helps great leaders gain the all-important asset every leader must have, followers.

According to Lynch, the overall purpose of the failure resume is to instill a bit more tenacity in his students — to get them to break outside of the confines of past successes and in the mindset of experimentation and calculated failures.

“Little kids when they’re learning how to walk fall a thousand times,” Lynch said. “And they just get up and try again. But most of us [as] adults, when we fail three or four times at something, we just quit because we’re efficient. We want to be economical with our energy.”

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.

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