Recovering From Failure in Leadership

Today’s reading: Joshua 8:1-29. Key verses: Joshua 8:1-2.

One of the hardest things to do as a leader is to recover from a failure. Whether the nature of the failure involved people or production, the mistakes that were made soon become visible to all and raise questions about the leadership capacity of the person making those calls. The next time that leader gives direction you can be sure that their followers will be internally questioning if they actually know what they’re doing.
In Joshua 8, the leader of Israel has to recover from a difficult and discouraging defeat at Ai because of the sin of Achan. Joshua doesn’t let the discouragement of the events of chapter 7 shape the outcome of his future in chapter 8. Instead, he looks to the Lord for the path forward.

Leadership Principle 8.1: To recover from a mistake, first make it right with God and others

Before this chapter ever begins, Joshua bows in the presence of the Lord to find out why the Israelites were defeated at Ai. Then, once the Lord reveals to him the sin of Achan, Joshua acts courageously to restore his relationship with the Lord and take care of the mistake of Achan. When a leader fails (and, to be clear, this was not solely Joshua’s mistake, though partially he was at fault) they should confess their sin before the Lord first and then reconcile themselves to others who may have been hurt or offended by their actions. This shows a posture of humility that is so beneficial and so absent from many leaders today.

Leadership Principle 8.2: To recover from a mistake, learn from that mistake

In chapter 7 Joshua had not inquired of the Lord before sending his warriors to Ai. In chapter 8, he learns from his mistakes and listens intently to the Lord’s direction. He allows the Lord to speak and set the parameters for the confrontation at Ai. He also obeys the Lord (and makes sure the people obey the Lord) in lighting the city on fire but taking the spoil and plunder of the city. Leaders cannot allow past failures to resurface by making the same mistakes repeatedly. Instead, they should learn from their past failures and make improvements in their management style for the future.

Leadership Principle 8.3: To recover from a mistake, take a different approach going forward

I enjoy watching football, as most red-blooded Americans do. But one of the most infuriating things is to watch a football team call the same play repeatedly with no resulting yardage gained. Can you remember seeing a team run the football right up the middle of the field over and over again just to be stopped by the opposing team’s defense? Doesn’t it just make you want to scream, “Call a different play already!”

When you make a mistake as a leader, many times it is necessary to try a new approach going forward. It’s time to call a different play. That’s what God does here with Israel at Ai. He doesn’t send them right up the main path to the city once again but has them wait in hiding behind the city until the warriors of Ai leave the site undefended. This change-up maneuver helped the people succeed in their capture of the city. Leaders can sometimes best recover from past mistakes by “calling an audible” and doing something different in their organizational or management techniques.

Leadership Principle 8.4: Once you recover from a past mistake, make sure you never forget

Joshua had the king of Ai killed and then heaped a mound of stones up over his body at the entrance to the city of Ai for all to see. This would serve as a reminder of the events that had transpired at Ai. In future generations, Israelites would warn their children about Achan’s sin and selfishness, and yet about the Lord’s forgiveness and faithfulness to Israel. They would make sure it was not forgotten.

Leaders should not too quickly move beyond mistakes once they are corrected but should remember their failures for two reasons. One, it keeps leaders humble to remember they are not infallible and can make mistakes. Two, it helps to give confidence that mistakes can be moved past by a leader and their organization. Remembering mistakes and failures, as unpleasant as they are, can forge humble and reflective leaders who learn from the past.

Summary in a Sentence

Every leader will make mistakes; the best leaders learn from their mistakes and later reflect on them creating humility and a retrospective self-awareness.

JJ Routley

Jonathan J. Routley (JJ) serves as Professor of Bible and Theology at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa. JJ also serves on the Board of Directors for the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR). He holds a PhD in Theological Studies from Columbia International University, South Carolina. JJ and his family reside in Dubuque, Iowa.
Twitter: @JJ_Routley
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