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How to Lead, Even if You Are a Failure

Leaders fail. Great leaders suffer great failure. Learn to keep going. Via lagarfias.com

Leaders fail. Great leaders suffer great failure.

Joshua, one of the greatest political and military leaders of Israel’s history, suffered one of the greatest setbacks in Isreal’s history, too. When this hit me recently, it changed how I view leadership forever.

Look at his situation: Joshua marched out of Egypt a freed slave with the rest of his countrymen. He spent the next several months getting as close to his own leader as possible — literally shadowing Moses every step he took. When Moses went up Mount Sinai and the people started partying, Joshua crept as close to the mountain as he could to make sure he was the first to catch Moses on his way down. When Moses went into the tabernacle to see God, Joshua waited outside patiently and then dashed into the tent to pray after his mentor. When Moses, at his father-in-law’s advice, organized the entire nation into an organized managerial system, Joshua quickly rose to the top. When Moses selected twelve tribal leaders to be the first eyes inside the Promised Land, Joshua was an obvious choice for the mission.

But what happened next is mind-blowing.

Joshua came back with his friend Caleb, giving glowing reports while calling the troops to battle.

But no one listened.

My failures today will shape the success that will one day come.

Joshua was not only unsuccessful in persuading his countrymen to fulfill their goal, he could not even rally his own tribe behind the plan. Every single Israelite, every member of his tribe and family, everyone utterly rejected his leadership and tried to not only oust him from power but to even execute him publicly. If not for an act of God, that would have been the end of Joshua altogether.

It was a crushing leadership failure. That night, Joshua went back to his tent to face a family that dishonored him publicly. For the next forty years, he watched nearly every single person he knew struggle in a miserable existence and ultimately die in the desert all because he could not convince them to do what they had intended to do all along.

In a leadership sense, this was the ultimate failure of massive proportions. It not only cost the goal, but it cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Epic Fail

How did Joshua recover from such an epic fail? What made him get out of his tent the next morning? What propelled him from this depth to even greater political and military success, ultimately achieving the very task he failed at so miserably?

Joshua doesn’t lay out a 10-point plan for leadership recovery, but I think that by reading the rest of his account, we can learn some valuable tools for recovering from failure.

How to Lead, Even if You Are a Failure

1. Joshua returned to his values. Rather than doing what I would have done – crawling into the tent to weep and wail and never emerge again — Joshua seems to have spent his forty years wisely. His leadership became more internal (dare I say, introverted?) as he quietly focused on his spiritual life. By reconnecting to the why of his life, Joshua strengthened his own foundation. It is this long-term vision, the growing knowledge of who God was to him and to his people and what God was doing with the nation as a whole, it is this vision that sustained Joshua during the wilderness years and ultimately propelled his leadership forward in Canaan.

2. Joshua started at home. Joshua’s family life is not detailed in Scripture, but two stark contrasts tell a compelling story. Before his epic failure, Joshua was a leader (maybe the leader) of his tribe of thousands. And no one followed his advice. By the end of his life, Joshua said, “As for me and my house,” and the entire nation heard and followed his example.

I think this is a significant change in Joshua’s perspective. As a young leader, he was focused (and probably very talented) with the power and prestige of leading the masses. But his painful lesson taught him that change starts at home. He had forty years to rebuild those close relationships and mentor his own family toward godliness. It appears it was time well spent, as those relationships became a model for the entire nation to follow.

3. Joshua learned who he was. This is where I am all conjecture, but if you stick with me, you may find I’m not too far off base. Joshua faced the worst possible scenario for his leadership — failure that cost the lives of everyone in his entire nation. It would never get worse than that. And when that happened, he learned the most important lesson any leader will ever learn: Who am I? Am I a leader? Do I have the right stuff?

When he found that he could get out of his tent the next morning … when he had the courage to hold his wife’s hand knowing she would soon die … when he patiently taught his children and grandchildren his nation’s history … when he listened to more grumbling from his neighbor and did not beat him down into the sand in frustration … when he ate manna for the 18,495th time while looking wistfully at the horizon … he learned how much he could endure. He saw his own character brought to the light of the hot desert sun, and he found God gave him strength and grace for each and every day.

I love Joshua’s story. When I fail (every day), it comforts me to know that my failures of leadership don’t cost a million deaths. And it reminds me that each failure is part of who I am.

My failures today will shape the success that will one day come.

And that is God’s Promised Land.

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