Prince Raney Rivers: Learning from failure

If we really want to learn something about transformative leadership, we should sit with our failures and missed opportunities.

If we really want to learn something about transformative leadership, we should sit with our failures and missed opportunities.

My lesson came the day I sat down to meet with a staff member on what had been a routine day at the church. We planned to talk about writing a discipleship curriculum. When I walked past the reception area I noticed a young man walking nervously into the front office. He wore long hair, an oversized white t-shirt and baggy blue jeans. The receptionist greeted him politely and he replied, “I just had a fight with my girlfriend and I needed to get away.”

There was nervousness in his eyes and blood stains on his teeth. Something else was going on besides a fight with his girlfriend.

I’d like to tell you that I confronted the troubled young man, counseled him about the error of his ways, led him to a tearful confession and now he’s working at the church as a youth minister. But that’s not at all how this story ends.

“You had a fight with your girlfriend?” I asked, walking sternly toward him. My guess was that he was running but from someone else. “If you had a fight with your girlfriend, you should be working things out with her.”

“So you’re kicking me out of the church?” he asked.

I blocked out the force of his words, choosing the security of the staff and myself. At this point I noticed a dozen blood splotches on his shirt. I said, “Your shirt is covered with blood so I don’t know what’s going on but you can’t stay here.”

He got up and walked toward the exit without saying a word. I followed him until he was out of the building and watched from behind stained glass windows.

At first, I breathed a sigh of relief that I avoided a crisis. But it wasn’t long before his words began echoing in my mind—“so you’re kicking me out of the church?”

I am not comforted by the fact that most people I know would have acted similarly in my situation. Nor do I find much relief in knowing that no matter what I did, the situation might not have turned out any differently. But I am convinced that experiences of failure like mine can be powerful catalysts for growth.

Failure and missed opportunities will be a part of the journey for every leader. Ask Peter, or David, or Moses. Consider your own journey. So how do we move forward after we have made mistakes?

I wonder what would have happened if I would have pulled this young man aside, perhaps with the assistant minister, and simply asked him what was really going on. I could have listened to him in a way that embodied the best of Christ-like compassion. He and I both might have a different story to tell today.

Thoughtful leaders are frequently bombarded with dilemmas that call us to stretch our imagination. Our task as a transformational leader is to provide leadership that promotes, well, transformation. Unless we do so we run the risk of crystallizing existing patterns of thinking and behavior. Each of us is called to transcend the horizons of conventional wisdom, take risks without being reckless and thrive on hope rather than fear. Fear inevitably drives us to choose safety and security over servanthood.

The next time I get together with a bunch of leaders who want to talk about their successes, I might ask them about their failures to hear what they have learned.

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC.