Fail Gloriously, Lead Boldly*

Girl Falling

One of the highlights of my year has been meeting with a group of upper school girls (recipients of the inaugural Moulton Student Global Citizenship Grant awarded by NCGS) to flesh out their idea for creating a middle school leadership program that is developmentally suited to this age group.

The girls’ commitment has been commendable. They never miss our weekly meetings, and their energy, creativity, and enthusiasm have fueled my own. There are other adults in the room, and together, we are slowly but surely driving toward our goal. The girls’ ideas are taking shape, and with the input of students and teachers in our middle school, will surely impact their younger sisters’ leadership identity.

In our earliest conversations, we explored what we know about girls in middle school, and their possibly reluctant stance toward claiming their leadership voice. We talked about the awkwardness that is so often a part of those middle years. We discussed how girls can worry about being seen as bossy by their peers, or about losing friends when a decision is unpopular.

We also talked about the fact that running for elected office (one form of leadership) is a highly vulnerable endeavor that opens oneself up to the sting of failure. We talked about how failure is an inherent part of stepping into a space that, because we are not clairvoyant, is unknown and unknowable to us. And we talked about how for girls, in particular, the risk of failure is a very hard concept to embrace. The pressure placed on girls to be “practically perfect in every way,” as Mary Poppins so famously said, has been covered in a variety of outlets. It is important to note, however, that this pressure can make girls risk-averse, which we know will in turn rob them of the opportunity to discover in themselves what they are truly capable of. Brené Brown speaks eloquently about how vulnerability is “our greatest measure of courage,” and each of us, in girls’ schools, hopes just that for our students—the uncovering of courage to risk, fail, and try again.

I shared with my group of intrepid upper school girls that I once read about a girls’ school in the UK that celebrated “failure week” in order to help its students become comfortable with the idea of failing for all of the reasons listed above. One girl—smart, bold, insightful, and honest—grabbed the arms of the chair in which she was seated. She sat up straight, caught her breath, and exclaimed, “I think we are going to have to incorporate something like that. The thought of it alone makes me anxious. I guess I really need it.” We all chuckled, because of her disarming honesty, but also because we could all relate. Failure can be excruciating. The (temporary) loss of confidence alone is enough to make us shrink back to doing what is safe and predictable. But here is the irony: the more we risk and the greater the potential for failure, the harder it becomes to retreat permanently to safe ground. Good leaders know this. Once you have imagined greater possibilities for yourself and others, it is hard to remain satisfied with the status quo.

When we have seen what is possible, we dust ourselves off and reach for the next opportunity to make our vision reality.

At one of our more recent planning meetings, the girls proposed we create a version of the Game of Life for our middle schoolers to play in which risk and decision-making will inevitably lead to moments of failure, but also moments of triumph. The point of the game is to become comfortable with the fact that life is not just smooth sailing, and in order to grow and lead, we need to make ourselves vulnerable by taking bold risks that may indeed lead to failing gloriously.

Mariandl M.C. Hufford, NCGS Trustee and Assistant Head of School and Director of the Center for the Advancement of Girls, The Agnes Irwin School

*“Fail gloriously” is attributed to actress Cate Blanchett who said, “If you know you are going to fail, then fail gloriously.”

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