One of the most systemic fears of our day is the fear of failure; also called atychiphobia. (There’s a new word for dinner parties!) We may all fear a stock-market crash, or a possible health crisis one day. We may fear the death of a loved one or even our own death. But day-for-day it’s the fear of failure that crops up with greatest consistency, and has the most persistent impact on many of us.
Failure in the workplace; a failed marriage; failed parenting; and so much more. We despise the shame associated with failure. Perhaps that’s why many people have quipped, “Winning isn’t everything, but losing is nothing!” Don’t we know it!
Our fear of failure deeply impacts both our own creativity and our willingness (as leaders) to release creativity in others. We guard our image and reputation by eliminating as much risk as possible. After all, “Everyone remembers who won but nobody recalls who came second!” In a field of 1000 runners, second place is still not winning. It’s just doing well.
Coaches often suggest steps to conquer the fear of failure, or ways to disempower it in the workplace. But for Christian leaders, nothing compares with a solid, biblically-grounded, deeply-considered theology of failure. How does God view our failure? The answer is simple and profound — redemptively.
Transformational leaders unleash creativity, and one important step is not simply a teeth-gritting, fist-clenching refusal to be afraid. Rather, it’s the open-handed, breath-calming assurance that failure is neither final nor fatal.
When we live with the deep conviction that forgiveness, redemption, restoration, and transformation all follow failure, we see it as a stepping stone — perhaps even a necessary stepping-stone — towards something fresh and new. In much the same way as the Bible declares that God’s mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23), so we can begin to see failure as yesterday’s (or last hour’s) experience, not tomorrow’s destiny.
Creativity and leadership flourish when we no longer fear (or are overwhelmed by) failure. Let it be fleeting, not fatal.
David Timms is Dean of the School of Christian Leadership at William Jessup University.