Failure – the Crucible of Success

When we talk about and explore with participants what good leadership is during programs we run at XLC, many discussions seem to center around character traits and values that seem to guide our behaviors.  When we do this exercise, it is remarkable to me how similar our lists look from one group of participants to another.

In this recent NY Times Magazine piece, some private school educators are reaching a similar conclusion – from a very different vantage point.   Character seems to be a major factor that predicts success in school, as well as in life.

Dominic Randolph is headmaster of  Riverdale Country School — one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, in the richest part of the Bronx. On the discussion boards of, worked-up moms from the Upper East Side argue over whether Riverdale sends enough seniors to Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Princeton.  Tuition starts at $38,500 a year, and that’s for prekindergarten.

What interests me about Randolph is his skeptical view about many basic elements of a contemporary high-stakes American education. He did away with Advanced Placement classes in the high school soon after he arrived at Riverdale; and he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign.

As a part of an effort to improve educational strategy he began to watch progress of alumni, and noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically.  They were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; or resist the urge to go out to the movies, staying home to study instead.

These seemingly critical character pieces — reminded him of those traits of mind and habit that were drilled into Randolph at boarding school in England.  Kind of Déjà-vu all over again.

But, what is good character? Is it really something that can be taught in the classroom, or does it come from upbringing, imparted gradually over years?  Which qualities matter most for a child trying to negotiate his way to a successful and autonomous adulthood? And are the answers to those questions the same in Harlem and in Riverdale?

They began to try to define it, and ultimately came up with a list of 24 key ones “ including some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, and gratitude.” (Those of you who have taken XLC’s Exploring Dimensions Of Personal Leadership program, and been through the personal leadership story exercise will, no doubt recognize many of these character traits.)

They began working on measurement scale, and considered introducing, in addition to a G.P.A., also a C.P.A., for character-point average.  While this idea of formal grading caused nervous students and parents, and was abandoned.  But what they did was talk about it a lot, measure it informally, and challenge teachers to think of creative ways to introduce these concepts into their classes.

One teacher developed a test to measure resilience, which she called the Grit Scale. It is a simple test, in that it requires you to rate yourself on just 12 questions, from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.”  In spite of the simplicity — when the teacher started to administer it, she found it was remarkably predictive of success.

There are many other elements of this amazing story in the Times article. But here is the main conclusion:

“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure”

Most Riverdale students can see before them a clear path to a certain type of success. They’ll go to college, they’ll graduate, they’ll get well-paying jobs — and if they fall along the way, their families will almost certainly catch them, often well into their 20s or even 30s, if necessary.

But despite their many advantages, Randolph believes that doesn’t really help them.  We all want ourselves our employees, and our children to succeed, of course — it’s just that he believes that in order to do so, they first need to learn how to fail.



Filed under Innovation, Leading, Managing Teams

4 responses to “Failure – the Crucible of Success

  1. Mark Kunkel

    I would also contend that those who have had failures along the way make better leaders. This is because past failures provide the perspetive which allows one to develop empathy for those that one leads. Additionally, those for whom success hasn’t just come naturally are often better teachers and develpers of those under them. To use a sports analogy, I have heard that some of the most gifted athletes are not necessarily very good coaches. Rather, it is the athlete who did not have all of the natural skills that often makes the better coach.

    • Interesting insight about “good” coaches. I have never read that before — but it seems plausible.

      • Dave Schroeder

        I would agree with Mark. Those that encounter failures and have the “grit” to succeed, will exam the failures and develop a more “conscious competence” in the core skills needed to be successful. Whereas the people with easy success will have more “unconscious competence” in those skills. The people with conscious competence, because of their skills awareness, will be better able to lead and teach others to succeed in diverse circumstances and in new situations, such as, changing economic conditions.

  2. Pingback: Students have to Fail to be Successful? « Ramani's blog

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