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How ‘Failure Resumes’ Can Boost Leadership Development

 -  2/10/12

Having students document their failures is an academic tool used to get students to challenge and stretch themselves. In the corporate world, it can help build better leaders.

Traditionally, a resume is written to summarize the professional, academic or personal success of an individual as a means to get a job or be accepted into an educational program or service organization.

But Doug Lynch, vice dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania and the creator of its doctoral program for CLOs, has a different use for the staid document. One of the first things he has students who take his class in entrepreneurship do is create a “failure resume.”

Instead of students listing what colleges or schools they attended, their major and the grade point average they received, he insists that they list all of the schools to which they applied but didn’t get in. The same is done for employment or other professional work experiences; it’s not what you accomplished successfully in these roles, but what you didn’t accomplish — what you failed at.

The idea, Lynch said, is multi-pronged. First, it serves as an icebreaker among students in the course, which requires that they work in teams throughout the term. Second, the failure resume is used as a development tool that forces students to reframe their experiences in a way that highlights potential areas of need.

It’s used “as an intellectual exercise to simply reframe their life through failures and to see what surfaces,” Lynch said. “If you sort of went back and looked at all the jobs you had or all the jobs you were turned down [for]; of all the schools you went to but those [where] you didn’t get accepted; not the person that is the love of your life, but the people you missed out on ... as an exercise it’s just an interesting one.”

“We think that learning how to look at things is a key facet of being effective as a learning leader,” he said. A person’s development can be viewed through his or her failures.

Sim B. Sitkin, professor of management and faculty director for the Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, who has written about learning through both success and what he terms “strategic failures,” said setting stretch goals and targeting potential “small losses” is a means for individuals to spur their professional development. Not doing so, he said, would be a misstep for anyone looking to advance their position — a failure to stretch limits, experiment with new ideas and obtain new leadership skills.

Article Keywords:   leadership development   innovation  


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