Honor Honest Failure

Failure in the corporate world means not being where you said you would be when you said you would to be there. Your team may miss a deadline. A product may not meet expectations. A new procedure has unintended and undesirable consequences. A contract is awarded to a competitor. Admitting failure and accepting responsibility is the first and essential step in moving onward to success. To be effective, admitting failure must happen quickly, with an honest appraisal of what happened and why.  Johnson & Johnson provided a classic example in 1982 when they immediately halted production and marketing and removed all Tylenol from retail shelves after discovering product tampering in Chicago. It cost the company over 100 million dollars, yet the chairman said it was an easy decision since the company’s central value of consumer safety trumped profit making. Honoring the failure made the company trustworthy in customers’ eyes.

Honoring honest failure means taking responsibility for your errors of omission and commission. Ignoring failure, pretending that everything is going according to plan, or looking for a scapegoat may do you and your organization irreparable harm. When you accept an honest failure, you provide the impetus to improve or fix a situation, and you also accomplish something that will help your organization in the future—you set an example of the expectation of honesty that your employees will emulate. On the other hand, not honoring honest failure sends a subtle message to employees that may lead to cover-ups, lying, or organizational stagnation.

Honoring Honest Failure

  1. To honor honest failure, first recognize you are failing.
  2. Get the facts—what, when, how, and why.
  3. Decide whom to tell and how to provide the information as soon as possible.
  4. Acknowledge the failure and take responsibility for your part.
  5. If possible, develop a plan to reach the original goal a different way or correct the consequences.
  6. Learn and move on.

A Case in Point:

The following is from an interview with Herb Kelleher, executive chairman and cofounder of Southwest Airlines, by Babson Insights, October 2004: “I’ll just give you an illustration. Some years ago our pilots got into a tough situation, and I didn’t realize how serious it was. It had reached the point where it was becoming a little fight with the FAA, not over safety issues, but it was becoming a competitive issue. At first I didn’t realize the heat that was being brought on our pilots, so I was saying, ‘Don’t pay any attention to this nonsense.’ Then after looking more closely I saw their problem, so I got all the pilots together and said, ‘I made a hell of a mistake, and it’s costing you.’” Southwest then worked with the FAA to solve the problem and reimburse the pilots.


Exercise 2: Honest Failure - Learning from Failure

Pick two examples of honest failure in your work or personal life. For each, identify how the failure was acknowledged and what you learned.


What makes a great leader? Management theorist Simon Sinek suggests, it’s someone who makes their employees feel secure, who draws staffers into a circle of trust. But creating trust and safety — especially in an uneven economy — means taking on big responsibility.

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