Failing Forward


Browsing through the DOE’s email to see what’s in the local news, I came across a story out of Fredericksburg that spoke to me about leadership in middle schools.  The Fredericksburg County School Board and the Fredericksburg Police department have teamed up to take action against bullying and instead show students what leadership really means.

“Leadership can be used in positive and negative ways … and when we look at leadership, it’s not the ones that are far ahead and managing people. They’re the ones that are coming alongside and helping people grow, and they’re influencing people to make better decisions for their lives.”

The certified trainers are working in association with John C. Maxwell to use their YouthMax Program as a way to teach students what positive leadership really looks like and how they, as pre-teens and teens, can be a positive influence on their peers.  While the article mentioned lessons on character development, confidence and other aspects of what makes a good leader; I was most intrigued by what they referred to as their lesson on “falling forward.”

Trainer Paul Gustavson explained, “You’ve got to learn to take those failures and make them learning experiences.  That’s all they are. Every failure you go through is an opportunity to learn.”  Paul’s message is pretty straightforward and one I believe middle schoolers should be hearing more regularly.  Middle school teachers know that this is the age where students are highly influential, forming their character and seem to be going in every direction all at the same time.  So many of the messages our society and the media send this group are about being the best and getting ahead.  At an age when they should be learning from mistakes, so many young people see even the smallest mistakes as full and devastating failures.  They see shame, embarrassment and all too often the value of what could have been learned is lost.

As I reflected on the idea of failing forward, I couldn’t help but to think about the support team required to help keep a leader on their truth north.  George describes this team as those who “keep you grounded in reality, and provide the support you need as you venture on your leadership journey” (2006, p. 117).  As teachers, can we do the same for our students?  I believe we should.  Educational leaders with a coaching style may be a good fit here.  They “believe people must learn from their own experiences, especially when failing” (George, 2006, p.195).  Students at this age do not typically respond to premature prompting to avoid a negative result.  Let’s face it, not everyone is going to respond to hearing, “Don’t touch that, it’s hot!”  Some of the lessons that have left the strongest impression on me (the ones I grew from personally) are the ones where I did touch the hot stove, but more importantly I was given the room to grow from the experience.  If a future leader can provide counsel to their teammates, the way that the folks on the Fredericksburg Youthmax Program are coaching their middle school students, then I think more people would embrace the idea of failing forward.


Leaders fail too, so how can they fail forward?  An educational leader who can improve the strengths of their teachers, as well as develop and maintain positive, strong relationships with them is better equipped to recover from failure (Seligman, 2011).  Having a support team is essential.  As a concluding thought, there is great value in allowing yourself the time and space to gain experience.  Somewhere along the way this will include failure and I hope that each of us can remember Paul’s message to the students, they’re learning experiences.  That’s all failure is really, if we remember to fail forward.


Dix, K. (2017, March 13). A positive direction for middles-schoolers: City police, staff and        schools work to fight bullying, promote leadership skills among youth. The Free                  Lance-Star. Retrieved from

George, B. (2007). True-North: Discover your authentic leadership. San Francisco,                      CA: Jossey-Bass.

Seligman, M. (2011). Building resilience.  Harvard Business Review, 89(4), 100-106.

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