Why Failure Is Good for Leaders

Integrity, leadership, vision – we all know that’s what great leaders are made of. But with the corporate world rapidly evolving, that’s no longer enough, says Annmarie Neal, author of the forthcoming Leading from the Edge (ASTD Press, 2013). Successful leaders today need two surprising new skills that may not have been appreciated in the past, but are mandatory for the future. One is a liberal arts orientation – and the other is a track record of failure.

A Liberal Arts Perspective. Government and industry have long fretted about the shortage of graduates with STEM skills – i.e., science, technology, engineering, and math. Liberal arts knowledge, meanwhile, has frequently been derided as “nice to have” but useless in the modern economy. Neal, however, believes those English majors and philosophy mavens may be our future leaders. “Leadership today is not about industry depth only,” she says. “It’s about making connections across disciplines.” The ability to innovate – like Steve Jobs, who famously toured India and studied calligraphy – “requires the ability to see the world. You need to be a sociologist, a cultural anthropologist, a political scientist, an economist. It’s back to the liberal arts.”

A Record of Failure. “I always worry about leaders who haven’t failed,” says Neal. So much so, she says, that “in many cases, I’ll put them in a situation to make them fail by design. It’s assignments you know are not going to be fully successful or that will hugely challenge them and they’ll fall down, skin their knees, and get back up.” Why is that so important? Neal believes it’s essential preparation. “If you haven’t learned [to fail], when it gets to the big game, you’ll never have the resources to get over the hurdle.” You need executives with the courage to move forward anyway and be willing to fail faster and smarter, she says.

Do you think the ability to handle failure is an important skill for leaders? And do you agree a liberal arts background could be the recipe for corporate leadership success?

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on January 3, 2013.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.