Do you care enough to fail?

Does your team struggle to take enough risks to really innovate? If so, you’re not alone.

I have found that as a compassionate leader, the crucial ingredient to innovating as a team is that we have a purpose that is greater than we are.

Google’s project Aristotle back in 2012 set out to identify what made teams effective. They reviewed 100s of teams using psychologists, engineers, researchers and statisticians. They looked at everything – academic results, employee performance ratings, team structure, whether they ate and socialised together and a whole lot more. What they discovered came as a big surprise.

The #1 characteristic of the most effective teams?

It turned out that the #1 characteristic of the most effective teams was psychological safety.

Psychological safety means that you feel safe in the team environment to take risks and fail. Innovation by definition requires that we take risks and many of them will ‘fail’. We just need to know that it ok – that someone’s got our back. Yet the most common fear that people have is the fear of personal or possible failure (Anxiety & Depression Association of America). So how do we create a psychologically safe environment? (I’ll get to that below)

I grew up worrying about what others thought of me. I was risk averse and I wanted people to think I was good. And I didn’t like looking bad, or failing. I avoided risk and played things pretty safe. All that changed about 4 years ago. My beautiful, fit, 46 year-old wife went out for a run one morning, suffered a heart attack, and almost died. She was on life support, and in a coma for 10 days. When she awoke, we found out she had suffered significant brain injury during resuscitation. She was going to need a lot of help.

In that instant everything in my world changed. My future, my hopes and my dreams. I was effectively a single parent of 3 children plus a carer for my disabled wife. My future was suddenly unclear. Everything had changed. I had to change. I had to stop worrying about what others thought and get really clear about what was meaningful and focus on that.

Finding a purpose greater than you

For the first time, I had found a purpose in life that was greater me (I’ve since found more than one of them). I had also learnt firsthand about compassion. Everything I did from then on was guided by purpose and compassion. Sure, I made heaps of mistakes along the way, but that didn’t matter. I was pursuing things that mattered.

I became a compassionate leader. I still did the hard things, but I did them with heart.

That changed the way I did things at work too. Together with my team, we started innovating more, failing small and fast, and delivering better results. Without thinking about it too much, I had helped the team buy into the purpose of what we were doing, and since I’d stopped worrying about what others thought, I was able to help them feel safe taking the risks we needed to take in order to fulfil that purpose.

Create an environment of psychological safety

As compassionate leaders, we need to let our purpose guide and motivate us to do the hard stuff required to create an environment of psychological safety. But how do we create that environment of psychological safety?

CREATE is the model I use for how, as compassionate leaders, we need to lead:


“To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” This is about heart – acting with honesty and integrity and being authentic. This is about the hard stuff. As leaders, we need to face into the uncomfortable and awkward situations. That’s what the team needs from us. That’s where we earn their trust and loyalty. Do that, and they’ll follow anywhere.


As leaders, we need to be crystal clear on the mission or purpose of the team. We need to communicate it in a way that engages. We need to understand what provides purpose and meaning for each of the team members and be able to link the 2 together.


This is about acting as one human to another and connecting with team members. Breaking down the hierarchical barriers and enabling honest 2-way communication. If we want to have a long-term working relationship, we need to accept there will be ups and downs. On both sides. Remembering that people want a role that enhances their life experience, it needs to support their life. This is about respect, flexibility and understanding.


We live in an uncertain and ambiguous world. As leaders we help the team navigate that. Firstly, through honest communication – admit we don’t have all the answers and being transparent about what we know and don’t know. Secondly, we can reduce ambiguity by making decisions. Mostly these are around priorities – what are we going to focus on, and what are we NOT going to focus on. That is the single best way to reduce ambiguity for the team.


Positivity is infectious. Nothing succeeds like success. The team loves to see progress and growth. This is about the team making progress towards our goals, and growing and developing as a team. This is also about the team members growing and developing in pursuit of their own goals. There will always be bumps in the road and setbacks. A resilient team expects these, learns from them, adapts and continues in pursuit of their purpose. We’re all hard-wired for negativity, so as leaders and as team members, we support each other in creating a positive, growth oriented environment.


Leader ego causes more problems than anything else. Nothing poisons the well for the team more quickly than a leader who takes all the glory or makes everything about them. When a deal doesn’t get done, or poor decisions are made, it is often because ego gets in the way. Then blame gets thrown around. People stop listening. Sharing decreases. It’s all about protection. We’re in survival mode. We’re stressed, afraid, and we’re not innovating. These are the kind of leaders people leave. Remember – people join a company, and leave a manager.

Compassionate leadership is the future of leadership. As compassionate leaders we create an environment that supports innovation and outstanding performance because it guided by a purpose shared by the team, where everyone feels safe to bring their best and be their best. Because we care enough to fail, we’ll succeed in the end.

If you’d like to learn more about innovation, shared purpose, psychological safety or to explore becoming a compassionate leader, get in touch with me at [email protected] or explore my coaching.

Whatever you do, do it with heart!

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