Failure and Leadership (and Yoda)


by Shannon – All of us have our favorite movie quote. Famous movie lines become soundtracks for our lives.

In a hurry?  “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”
Saying goodbye?  “Here’s lookin’ at you kid”
Want a raise?  “SHOW ME THE MONEY!”

This weekend, I got to hear what is, hands down, my favorite line ever uttered in cinematic history.  And it was said by a tiny green alien with a voice like Fozzie the Bear.  Yes, that’s right, I’m talking about Yoda.

Now, for those of you who have not seen the new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, I won’t spoil anything.  But in context I must say that this line was uttered when Yoda was telling another, very important character, about the importance of failure in being a leader.  Yoda states:

“We are what they grow beyond”

I love this line.  Not only because of its simplicity, but because of its profound implications.

A couple of years ago, the eminent Eve Marder wrote a wonderful piece about the importance of failure in science. She emphasized the need to own and correct our scientific mistakes to both reduce sloppiness and accelerate growth. But she also observed that recognizing mistakes can also, potentially, bring new scientific insights from the errors themselves.

Likewise, Yoda remarks that failure in a leader is important.  “We are what they grow beyond”, he says. “That is the burden of a master”. Failure is an essential characteristic of leadership. It is only through our own failure as leaders that our students, employees, or followers can, through learning from those failures, grow beyond us.  That is our ultimate reward as leaders.  Science “stands on the shoulders of giants”.  So, too, does progress. We must, as a hopeful, optimistic, humanity, believe that the next generation improves upon the one before. And that can only happen if they know, not just what makes us successful, but what holds us back.  They can only stand on our shoulders if they understand why we can’t grow any taller.

As a Principal Investigator, one of the mottos I often tell my lab members is “I’ve made the mistakes, so you don’t have to!” They always laugh at this, but I am perfectly serious.  I have made so, so many mistakes.  I’ve said the wrong words, written the wrong emails, played the wrong hand.  But I don’t regret any of my mistakes.  And I am not afraid to share them with my students.  Because no one learns when things go right – only when they go wrong.

Sometimes, my mistakes aren’t from taking action, but from inaction. Many times, especially as a woman scientist, I’ve failed to protect myself. I’ve failed to stand up for my own rights or my own potential.  I’ve kept quiet when I should stand tall.  And I know that has held me back.  But that is precisely the type of information that future scientists, or, really anyone, needs to hear.

Too often, we are given the impression that being the boss means being invincible, impenetrable, and immaculate. We must be perfect.  We must never let them see us sweat.

But this is completely wrong.

Greatness is not what we have in ourselves, but what we bring to others.

A true leader is not standing at the top of a mountain.  He, or she, is the one helping others to reach that summit.

Imagine if all our children, all our students, and all our employees become so much greater than we ever can.

Imagine what kind of world that will be.

“We are what they grow beyond”

Thanks, Yoda.

[NOTE: the opinions in this piece are the author’s own]

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