Make no mistake about it: If you serve long enough as a university administrator, sooner or later you will fail at something—massively, undeniably, and embarrassingly. Either the result that you intended from an initiative never came close to being achieved, or you’ll have a new supervisor who feels you’ve wasted your time pursuing X when you should’ve been pursuing Y, or you’ll charge off in a bold new direction only to discover than no one is interested in following your lead. Never having a failure isn’t really an indication that you’ve done everything successfully; it’s more likely an indication that you haven’t been trying enough new ideas or endeavors. Certainly, you can fail by attempting to do too little rather than too much. But to fail miserably … that usually entails the launching of a new, albeit ill-advised enterprise.
As you look at the academic leaders who are your peers, you’ll probably also notice their administrative failures as well. But there are some key indicators of a person whose reaction makes the failure worse and sometimes clouds that person’s entire administrative tenure. These are the signs of ungraceful failure.
- Blaming others for the problems and insisting that the idea was sound; it’s just that those implementing it were flawed.
- Continuing to advocate for an idea long after it’s clear to everyone involved that few people, if any are in support of it.
- Frequently inventing excuses for the failure so as to justify to others that “it wasn’t my fault.”
- Becoming embittered by the project’s lack of success and treating others differently as a result.
- Refusing to try again at other initiatives because “it’s just not worth it” or “the system isn’t fair.”
- Demonstrating a willingness to gloat over a victory equal to the tendency to whine about a loss.
- Directing anger and sarcasm at others out of frustration or an excessive need to “vent.”
- Seeking another position or returning quickly to the faculty because administration just doesn’t treat people fairly.
Ungraceful failure is tantamount to being a sore loser. On the other hand, failing gracefully means failing graciously. So, how should academic leaders respond when one of their most prized initiatives goes awry?
See the handwriting on the wall
The best academic leaders are administrators who can be objective in their own self-assessments. If you support a change or new procedure that you believe is vastly superior to other ideas or what’s currently in place, but very few others tend to agree, then there really are two possibilities. Either you’re right and practically everyone else is wrong, or they’re all right and maybe—just maybe—you may be wrong. We all know of cases where one lonely voice saw possibilities or dangers up ahead, continued to speak on behalf of this perception, and was ultimately proven to have been remarkably prescient. But we should also be aware that these situations are remarkably rare. If you find yourself as that lonely voice in the wilderness even once or twice during your whole career, you’ll be far ahead of the average. So, you need to reflect carefully about whether this issue is one of those extremely uncommon occurrences. Is this a matter for which you’d stake your whole career on? If it is, then you should probably continue to speak out. If it’s not, and you think that other people could possibly have a point, then continuing to advocate for the idea doesn’t make you a prophet; it makes you a sore loser.
Academic leadership isn’t about winning. It’s about doing what’s best for your programs and institution. As painful as it can be, sometimes the course of action that’s in the best interests of your programs and institution isn’t the one that you championed. Failing gracefully means taking responsibility for the false start and perhaps for wasting people’s time and resources in the process. You don’t necessarily need to do public penance for the misstep; sometimes the best approach is to admit defeat with a bit of self-deprecating humor and then move on. But it’s counterproductive to attribute your lack of success to others or to claim that “the institution just wasn’t ready for” your progressive new idea. Members of the faculty and staff can forgive you for not always being right. They may find it much harder to forgive if they sense that you regard them as culpable for your own mistake.
Learn from failure
Failure can be a great teacher and not just in humility. If you can be objective about what went wrong, it can help you prepare for greater success next time. For example, sometimes our initiatives fail because we try to do too much too soon or don’t do enough preliminary work behind the scenes before we go public or introduce an idea that runs counter to the core values of a particular program or institution. These experiences alert us to the pace of change that works best in our programs, the identities of the opinion leaders with whom alliances must be forged before bringing in other groups, and the “hot button” issues that motivate others at our institutions. That’s valuable information, and it can help you make your next initiative more successful. Fortunately, people tend to have very short memories for the mistakes of others. The failure from the past that still makes you wince is likely to have been long forgotten by everyone else. If you move on quickly, so will others.
Immediately after a failure, you’ll probably want other people to cut you some slack and understand that great ideas sometimes bring about great failures. Keep that thought in mind the next time (or even the next dozen times) someone in your area has a similarly spectacular failure. If you don’t extend the same understanding to others that you expected from them, you’ll not only be a hypocrite but also a failure in a sense that’s much harder to recover from.
Jeffrey L. Buller is director of leadership and professional development at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner in ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, the second edition of The Essential Academic Dean or Provost: A Comprehensive Desk Reference, is available from Jossey-Bass.