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Why it’s hard for the next generation to lead-3

I am in the midst of a blog series explaining why it’s so difficult for young people to step up into leadership roles today. Staff/faculty tell me it’s very difficult for the majority of them. I plan to offer a diagnosis and a prescription in each blog. So far, I’ve shared two ideas young people struggle with currently: meaningful conversation and critical thinking. Today, I have another.


Fear of Failure vs. Risk Taking

The students you lead have grown up in a world that will not let them fall or fail. We are consumed with protecting them with kneepads, safety belts, helmets, cell phones for emergencies and insurance policies. Schools will find a way to pass them on to the next grade even when they can’t read or do math well. Even if their soccer team came in last place, they still get a ribbon. We’ve taught them that failure is bad. Never let it happen to you. The bottom line?  Most young people are conditioned to avoid failure at all costs. For many, their mantra is: if I might fail I won’t try.

Sadly, psychologists in Europe (this is documented in my next book) tell us that if kids are taught by mom or dad to not climb too high on the monkey bars because they might fall and skin their knee, those kids begin living this way as adults. A child who doesn’t take appropriate risks at nine years old, is often fearful of risks at twenty-nine years old. In fact, they’ll probably experience phobias.

Anxiety and depression are prevalent in kids today—and for many of them, it’s for no real apparent reason. Millions of these students come from middle class or upper middle class homes, with technology and money and food. The problem is: they’re afraid. Afraid of risk, failure and even of growing up. They are risk-averse.

How This Affects Leadership Development

You can probably imagine how this impacts their willingness to assume leadership roles. With a fear of failure, they’re prone to play it safe and refuse to sign up for a position. Who wants to fail and be criticized by your peers or administrators?  So what can we do to enable kids to take healthy risks and embrace failure?

1. Communicate a different message.

Let them know failure is not fatal or final. Tell them you expect them to try new things and even fail along the way. It’s part of life’s journey.

2. Give them safe projects at first to “test their wings.”

In the beginning, acquaint students to failure by giving them something that won’t have huge consequences attached to it if they do fail. Give them “training wheels.”

3.  Tell them stories of your past failures.

I do this with students I teach and with my own two kids. They love hearing stories of the bonehead mistakes I made—and they see how I laughed, and survived it all.

4. Start them on teams before you request individual projects.

If it helps, put them in pairs or small teams, so if they fail, they’ve got company. This will likely enable them to ease into the deep end of the pool alone…eventually.

Here’s to embracing failure and taking risks!

How can we encourage the next genration to overcome the fear of failure and take healthy risks?

4 Comments

  1. JeffBrdnax on January 25, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Amazingly true.  Thanks for stating it so clearly.

  2. Deborah Glenister on January 27, 2012 at 8:23 am

    This has made me think about the way I bring up my children and how I was brought up myself. I teach woodwind and piano one to one as well and I always try to let them know that playing a wrong note is not the end of the world 🙂

    • Tim Elmore on January 31, 2012 at 11:44 am

      Glad it got you thinking! Great insight about teaching music.

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Why it’s hard for the next generation to lead-3