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The Failure-Success Paradox: How Leaders Can Learn from Both

The age-old question of whether leaders learn more from success or failure has been a topic of interest for many years. While some argue that success is the best teacher, others believe that failure provides more valuable lessons.

Today we will explore the main points of both arguments and provide specific examples to support each side.

The Case for Success

Success breeds confidence and reinforces positive behaviors: When leaders experience success, they gain confidence in their abilities and are more likely to repeat the behaviors that led to their success. This reinforcement can help them develop good habits and build on their strengths.

For example, Steve Jobs, the co-founder and former CEO of Apple, was known for his success in creating innovative products that revolutionized the tech industry. His success with the iPhone, iPad, and other products reinforced his confidence in his design philosophy and encouraged him to continue taking risks and pushing the boundaries of technology.

Success provides a sense of validation: When leaders achieve success, they receive recognition and validation from their peers, employees, and customers. This validation can boost their self-esteem and motivate them to continue striving for excellence.

For example, Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, has had many successful ventures in various industries, including music, airlines, and space tourism. His success has earned him widespread recognition and validation, which has likely motivated him to continue taking risks and pursuing new opportunities.

The Case for Failure

Failure provides opportunities for growth and learning: When leaders experience failure, they have the opportunity to reflect on what went wrong and learn from their mistakes. This process of self-reflection and learning can help them develop new skills and strategies.

For example, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, was rejected by 12 publishers before one finally agreed to publish her book. Her persistence and willingness to learn from rejection led to one of the most successful book series of all time.

Failure fosters resilience and adaptability: When leaders face failure, they must find ways to bounce back and adapt to new challenges. This resilience and adaptability can help them navigate difficult situations and overcome obstacles.

For example, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has experienced several setbacks and failures in his career, including the failure of his first startup,, and a near-bankruptcy experience with Tesla. However, he has consistently demonstrated resilience and adaptability, learning from his mistakes and using them as opportunities to improve and innovate.


Both success and failure have their own unique benefits for leaders. While success can breed confidence and reinforce positive behaviors, failure provides opportunities for growth and learning. Ultimately, the key to effective leadership is the ability to learn from both success and failure and use those lessons to adapt and improve.

As leaders, we must embrace both success and failure as part of our journey and use them as opportunities to grow and learn. By doing so, we can become more effective, resilient, and adaptable leaders who are capable of achieving great things.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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