The Art Of Failure

It’s surprising where you get your leadership lessons from isn’t it?

Last December my husband and I escaped to Amsterdam for the weekend to celebrate our anniversary. The purpose being to relax and have fun (and not to rush around sight-seeing which I am guilty of on City Breaks.) The compromise was that there was only two places that we really wanted to visit. The Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank’s Secret Annexe.artoffailure

Both places taught me a lot – but it was during the visit to the Van Gogh Museum that I started to think about how failure (or rather how we deal with it) and how it features so heavily in the lives of so many leaders.

As I was walking round I noticed the newly discovered Van Gogh painting called Sunset at Montmajour. This painting spent years in an attic of a Norwegian art collector and it took a long time to prove that it was indeed a genuine Van Gogh. It was eventually authenticated by letters written by Van Gogh, the style of the painting and the materials that were used.

Although in itself this painting was a remarkable discovery it was the fact that Van Gogh had deemed this painting a failure that struck a chord with me, as he didn’t achieve what he really wanted to with this piece of work.

To the un-trained eye (believe me I know absolutely nothing about art) the painting was beautiful. It was actually my favourite painting in the museum and I certainly did not think it was a failure. But it did make me think that the one thing we can be sure of is that sooner or later we will encounter that feeling of failure.

It might be the fear of failure that holds us back. For leaders, this is a fear that can be quite crippling. It might stop us from having a go because we might get it wrong. It might stop us from trying in case we make a mistake, stop us from finishing in case it’s not right, or stop us from putting ourselves out there in case we’re not good enough. Either way…it stops us!

Or, it might be the failure we encounter when something, despite our best efforts, doesn’t go according to plan, and we suddenly find ourselves faced with a worst case scenario either in reality, or just in our own perception of how something has turned out.

Either way, it’s how we react to these failures and fears that are the true test. Resilience for leaders is an essential skill. Even when all we want to do is pack up and head for the hills we must persevere and try again. Find new ways to do things, do better next time and use our failure stories to teach others along the way.

So, rather than get caught up in failure let’s keep going anyway…because who knows your idea of failure might be someone else’s masterpiece.

Barbara Nixon

Barbara Nixon

Management Development Trainer, Coach and Writer at Barbara Nixon
Barbara Nixon is a passionate learning and development specialist who gets a real kick out of seeing people develop and grow. Barbara is Director of Synaptic Change – a UK based training consultancy that designs and delivers bespoke management development programmes, and then embeds the learning back into the workplace -which is something that she is very passionate about. Although Barbara loves working with organisations and teams she also came to realise that not everyone has access to development programmes at work, and not everyone wants to share their aspirations with their boss – so Managers Mentor was born. An online space dedicated to motivating, developing and supporting others to achieve the success that they’re looking for in their role and career. In her spare time Barbara has 4 kids, grows veg to varying degrees of success and loves to read.
Barbara Nixon
Barbara Nixon




  • February 11, 2014


    That’s a perspective I hadn’t thought of – that what I deem a failure might just be someone else’s idea of success. I think that will change a lot of people’s perspective on the definition of success and failure. Great!

  • February 11, 2014


    Exactly! Absolutely. It is stunning, if you think about it in terms of that painting, too. Besides all else, failure (not unlike success) is truly only another step. Because think about it… Van Gogh didn’t quit painting when he painted Starry Night… THAT was (and of course is) a success- and he didn’t stop when he painted Sunset at Montmajour… we don’t stop- (usually!!)- fail or win, we keep going. And it is our own judgement most of the time that decides whether something we have done was a success or a failure. What a wonderful post for us! Thank you Barbara.

  • February 11, 2014


    This is very interesting take and I wonder how many of you writers/bloggers think you have written a really good post and it will do well, and then it doesn’t. Other times you quickly throw something together, which you might consider superficial fluff and it does really well ~ it resonates with a lot of people…. and you would never have guessed! So perhaps we are not the best judges of our failures:-) And maybe the same is true with our successes, as of course they are related. 

    Thanks so much Barbara for your contribution here.

  • February 12, 2014


    CASUDI Thanks for your feedback Casudi. You’re absolutely right, writing is a great example. Sometimes we’re our own worst critic.

  • February 12, 2014


    AlaskaChickBlog Thanks for your comments Amber Lee. You’re right, Van Gogh didn’t stop painting, and we shouldn’t stop either, and view ‘failure’ as just another learning point.