How to Fail as a Leader (book)

The Power of An Unnatural Apology

What you say after you make a mistake will either begin the healing or double the damage. Tweet This There is great power in an honest, full apology.Customer service experts know that a complaint is actually a golden opportunity to create a raving fan if you handle it well. Surgeons are taught that the best way to avoid a malpractice lawsuit is actually to give a heartfelt apology to the family, not avoid and excuse. Marriage counselors help couple reverse years of pain by apologizing instead of defending.

sorry comic

In just about every field of human interaction, a good apology has been proven to be a game changer. But in all those fields, it’s also revealed that our default state is not to apologize well. It’s to explain why it wasn’t really entirely our fault. It’s to protect and defend, rather than humble ourselves.

Many of us have never seen someone offer a full apology, which includes:

1) Name the behavior you’re sorry for. Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Not even close to enough. What exactly did you do (or fail to do) that was wrong? Own it and name it.

2) Acknowledge how it made them feel. This is not permission to say, “I’m sorry you felt hurt” and avoid naming what you did wrong. That’s a false apology. This is a separate sentence after you named what you did wrong. Once the mistake is identified, say something like, “I can see that it hurt you” or “I realize this made you feel ignored.”

3) Say what you’ll do differently from now on. Offer a plan on how you’ll make sure this won’t happen again. Or at least a specific commitment that the next time you’re in this situation, you’ll do the opposite. (Of course, this means you need to follow through what that or this whole apology will be invalidated.)

4) Don’t make a single excuse or explain why you weren’t really wrong. This might be the hardest part of the apology. At least, it is for me. No defending, explaining, or justifying why you did what you did. Explaining should be handled in a separate conversation. And don’t start that “separate conversation” right after the apology. If you truly do need to explain, you’ll have to come back later, probably another day, and have that conversation.

But let’s be honest, it usually isn’t necessary to explain. We just want to feel justified so we can avoid the pain of being wrong. When we make a mistake, the guilt and loss felt in that moment is intense. Our impulse is to move away from that as fast as possible. So I challenge to have the strength of character to resist your impulse and make a full apology. Parents, teach your kids to apologize well. Leaders, model for your people a true apology. And spouses, break the cycle of argument with a real apology. Have the courage to sit in that pain for a little bit and make a true, full apology. It will make a bigger difference than you might realize. It could change the future path of your whole relationship.

This post is my answer to a discussion question from Chapter Four Debrief of How To Fail As A Leader.

photo credit: sorry via photopin (license)

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Scott WozniakThe Power of An Unnatural Apology

What Do You Do If You Work For A Bad Boss?

What do you do when your boss is bad leader? In How To Fail As A Leader, one of the main characters has real problems with the vision and direction of his boss. Sadly, this is not a fictional problem. I spoke this week with a friend who is a similar situation. Here’s what I said:

First, ask yourself if you really are supposed to stay with that leader. Jimmy Collins (former President of Chick-fil-A) taught me that it is our responsibility to choose our bosses well. Tweet This It’s normal to feel stuck. But you have more options than you probably realize. It might take some time to make a transition happen, but you can find a better job with a better boss.

an unwitting victim screaming man

But what if you believe you’re supposed to stay with that leader? My friend believed God was calling him to stay for at least a while longer.

Then ask the leader how they would like to receive feedback. Before you give challenging feedback, ask them what the best way would be to offer input to them—and on what topics they’re willing to listen. Pre-negotiate how to have that conversation. At best, this opens the door for you to come back later with specifics in the way they want. At worst, you’ll find out they aren’t open to challenges before you stick your foot in your mouth.

But what if—as in my friend’s case—they aren’t open to feedback?

Is time to establish boundaries to protect yourself. Know what you need to stay healthy and protect that. You might need boundaries around how much time you’ll work. Or you might need to limit how often you’ll talk about how bad your boss is with your colleagues and friends. Stirring up frustration after you’ve decided to live with only makes it harder. You might even need to protect yourself from your own passion for excellence and be willing to do what the boss says even when you don’t agree. Choosing to stay means choosing to follow that leader even when you disagree.

If you can’t live with these limits, then I refer you back to the first question. Why are you staying? If the only reason is because you can’t see a way out, then you can decide to leave and give yourself the freedom to start figuring out a way to do that well. There are always options, if you’re willing to be both creative and persistent. And be sure to interview your next boss thoroughly. The second time around with the same type of bad leader you won’t learn as much—and it hurts just as bad.

Lastly, if this is happening to you, do not waste this opportunity. I learned so much from my bad leaders. Hopefully I learned enough that I’m not “teaching” my staff these lessons, too. 🙂 It was painful and exhausting and I don’t recommend staying very long. But while you’re there, squeeze as much learning as you can from it. Don’t let your pain go to waste. Tweet This You might even want to journal during this season, both to help you process your pain and to crystalize the insights.

This post is my answer to a discussion question from Chapter Four Debrief of How To Fail As A Leader.

photo credit: an unwitting victim…bwahahhahahaa via photopin (license)

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Scott WozniakWhat Do You Do If You Work For A Bad Boss?

Why Bother With Ceremonies?

My childhood included institutions rich with ceremonies, from high church liturgy to high class educational institutions to high brow theater. And I decided I didn’t like ceremonies. My energy level certainly didn’t help me sit through formal events (ADD would be putting it mildly). So when I was a new leader I tried to engage in as little ceremony as possible, proud of my enlightened, humble posture. And my leadership suffered for it.

As I led and learned in a variety of settings I realized that it wasn’t ceremonies I disliked, it was empty ceremonies. The intensity of the ceremony should match the importance of what is honored. Tweet This When someone drones on and on about a routine event, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. But when something truly significant goes down, a serious ceremony is not just helpful, it’s needed. Weddings and funerals would be cheapened without a full ceremony.

Ceremonies are an attempt to highlight something as worthy of special attention. And strategically planning for these moments can enhance almost every area of our lives. For example, my parents added a ceremony to the birthday parties of my childhood (though we didn’t call it a ceremony). Typically around present opening time (a common ceremonial event at birthday parties) all the guests were asked to share what they liked about the birthday boy or girl. We took turns speaking as the rest of the room listened. They could have just asked everyone to share something in private during the party. But having the entire room sit and listen as others shared, one by one, made it a much more special moment. And then my father always closed that “ceremony” by praying a blessing over the birthday child, laying hands on top of their head. That was anything but an empty ritual for me and my siblings.

It’s common for leaders to reward a team that has hit a big goal with a “share in private” approach. But spending five minutes to gather the rest of the staff and conduct a small ceremony would honor that team and inspire the rest of the organization.

proposal surprise

Romance is in large part built through ceremonies. Getting down on one knee and opening a ring box transforms a simple question into a major moment. If you’re looking to heat up a relationship, consider increasing the intensity and frequency of your ceremonies together—putting on special clothes, going to special places, and saying special things.

What is most important to you? What would you like to draw special attention to? Does the intensity of your ceremonies match the importance of that area in your life? If not, look for ways to create lasting memories and strong values through more and better ceremonies.

This post is an answer to a discussion question in the book, How to Fail as a Leader. For more info about that book, go to

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Scott WozniakWhy Bother With Ceremonies?

Leaders and Style: Follow the Rules or Follow Your Heart?

One of the characters in my book, Addoc, loses some trust with his followers because of his clothing choices. In his case, he violated their military uniform. His dismissal of official rules creates an unnecessary hurdle for his followers as they get to know him.

But what about those of us not in the military? How do we choose the most appropriate attire? Do we simply follow the crowd and wear what everyone else is wearing to be safe? Or do we follow popular advice to ignore others and do whatever feels good?


I spent years of my life avoiding style decisions. Jeans and a shirt was my outfit almost every day. Casual days I wore t-shirts and fancy days I wore button up shirts. If I was teaching I would go so far as to wear dress shoes instead of sneakers. But with the help of two mentors, I came to realize that clothing communicates. And anything that communicates to others is an influence tool. And leaders cannot ignore an influence tool without paying a price.

So, how to choose what to wear? My current approach is to neither follow the crowd or ignore the crowd. First, learn how to follow the rules. Only then will you know which ones to break. Tweet This

Before deciding what you should wear, I recommend learning what the norms of your peers are. For some people, this is automatic and instinctive. You’re sensitive to what everyone else in your setting (your office, school, church, etc) is wearing. I had to put real effort into learning this. But until you have a solid grasp on what’s normal, you can’t make intelligent choices about what to wear.

With this information in hand, you can select how you will be different from the crowd. It’s the deviations from the norm that speak the loudest. This might result in you wearing radically different clothing from the norm, if that’s the message you want to send. Go for it. But there’s a world of difference between random differences and thoughtfully choosing. It’s like first learning to speak a language properly before choosing which words to use to represent yourself. The more fully you understand proper grammar the more powerfully you can communicate what you want. You don’t have to use proper grammar when crafting your message, but if you don’t know the norms you can’t know how create the right effect at the right time.

But there’s one more crucial piece. You need to know exactly what impression you want to make. If you don’t know the message you want to send, you don’t know what to wear. Steve Jobs took his clothing seriously and eventually created his own “uniform”—buying dozens of the exact same black turtleneck shirt and jeans and wearing them almost every single day. He knew the message he wanted to send.

If at this point, some part of you is violently rebelling at the thought of doing anything other than what you prefer, then let me remind you: If you’re not trying to become a better influencer, then don’t worry about this at all. Just pick what looks cool or feels comfy and move on. But if you want to be an influencer, then you have to face the hard truth: You influence best by serving others, not fulfilling your own desires. Tweet This

photo credit: FASHION : BV LOOKBOOK #105 + SNAZZY via photopin (license)

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Scott WozniakLeaders and Style: Follow the Rules or Follow Your Heart?

4.5 Days to Write–4.5 Years to Publish!

My book, How to Fail as a Leader, hits the stores today. It’s officially released!

How to Fail as a Leader 3D book coverBUY THE BOOK HERE!

It only took me four and a half days to write the rough draft of my book, How to Fail as a Leader. I went on a week-long writing retreat and wrote for 14 hours a day. But that was four and a half years ago. Why did it take me so long to get from first draft to final release?

Partly, because it was a nights and weekends project. But mostly it was because I believe excellence matters. I rewrote the book eight times before it was ready to publish (and that doesn’t count the grammar/spelling revisions). Characters were cut, scenes added, discussion questions created…

More than once over the last 12 months I was tempted to publish one of the earlier versions. I have lot of other writing projects I want to do. Starting another version of this book meant delaying all other books. But I each time knew I could make the book a lot better with more work. Each time, I was faced with a choice between good enough and excellent. And, as you already know, I chose excellence.

Now, I’m not saying the book is a masterpiece. And don’t confuse doable excellence with impossible perfection. Excellence is my performance compared to my potential. My potential is never perfect. I hope I learn things that make the next book even better. But I can say this book I just released the best I can create with the leadership insights and writing skills I have now.

In the short-term, it was much harder to choose excellence. But in the end, I’m glad I did it. And I’ve never met anyone who chose excellence over expedience and regretted it. Tweet This Whether or not other love the book, I can hold my head high knowing I truly did my best.

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Scott Wozniak4.5 Days to Write–4.5 Years to Publish!

Is Your Time Management More American or African? [From How to Fail as a Leader]

Over 80% of my new book is an exciting adventure story (it’s much more fun to learn that way). But at the end of each chapter, I explore some of the lessons embedded in the story. This post is a selection from the end of Chapter Two.


Book Cover - front

People have strong feelings about time and task management. In the United States many people consider how a person handles these to be a character issue. They evaluate others’ integrity and maturity by how soon they show up before an appointment, for example. Failing to get a task done when you said you would means you didn’t keep your word—you lied. However, I have friends who are successful leaders in places like South Africa and India who find these standards absurd. They believe good leaders are gracious enough to allow others to show up whenever it works best for them.

So what’s the right answer? How should leaders manage time and to do’s? African style? American style? Another style?

For individuals, I think the right approach is different for each person. We all have our own unique wiring and there’s not one right answer. However, this isn’t a book about identifying your preferred style. This is a book for leaders. When you are a leader, your choices have a bigger impact on others. Good leaders do what best serves their people, not what best pleases themselves. Tweet This

And, of course, I made some big mistakes in this area, too. I’m naturally more “African” in my approach to time and tasks. But I was born in America and often work with leaders who are strictly “American” in their view of time. (I used to joke that I was born on the wrong continent.) Early on, I was challenged about my casual approach toward time and tasks. My flexible schedule caused real trouble for those I led, sometimes disrupting the rest of their day. I struggled with this for a while, but eventually realized that if I wanted to be a good leader, this was one of the (many) things I needed change. I needed to serve those I led by working in a way that was best for them.

I engaged a leadership coach, read books, and bit by bit established a simple, but powerful system to make sure I showed up on time and didn’t forget tasks. I learned to sort and respond to emails much faster, even if all I could say was, “I’ll get back to you on this next week.” I became more organized and disciplined than I thought possible—because that’s what my people needed from me.

I also have friends who moved from America to India who had to make the opposite shift. They had to learn to schedule their day loosely, to stay calm when the plan changed, and then changed again. When you’re a leader, it’s not just about you. It’s about those you lead.

Adduce [one of the heroes of the story] didn’t intend to create trouble for those he led. But his casual approach to time and tasks conflicted with how the fort operated. And without realizing it, Addoc was losing Eldin’s trust [the other hero of the book], one missed commitment at a time.


Again, this was pulled from my book, How to Fail as a Leader, which hits the stores next Monday, April 25th! If you are interested in ordering a book, just send me a message and I’ll get one sent to you. Or check it on out Amazon HERE.] read more

Scott WozniakIs Your Time Management More American or African? [From How to Fail as a Leader]

How A Bad Grade Made Me A Better Man

My latest book (which launches in 2 weeks!) has the unusual title, How to Fail as a Leader. Partly, that’s tongue in cheek—I want you to succeed, of course. But partly it’s about the power of learning from our failures. Many of the greatest learning moments in my life were right after I failed. Tweet This

sad man

For example, I have a vivid memory of sitting at my desk in my college dorm room, staring at a paper with my first truly bad grade at the end of a class. I was valedictorian of my high school and I planned to repeat those grades in college. Despite my diligence to play Axis & Allies (epic war board game) at least once a week, I somehow hadn’t gotten perfect grades.

I remember leaning forward in my chair, looking closely at the paper one more time, thinking, “What do I do now?” My dream for perfect college grades was over. Permanently. And I still had three and a half years to go. I had failed already.

Then I heard God’s voice in the quiet of my heart: “Why do you like yourself?”

My answer changed my life. In the pain of that moment, I realized that I had depended on being smart to like myself. And I used grades to validate that I was smart enough to be worth liking. In that moment I realized how dangerous and unhealthy it was to depend on perfect grades in order to like myself.

For the first time in my life, I released myself from the pressure of being perfect in school. Thankfully, I didn’t stop trying to do well in my classes. I even learned how to study better (not that I stopped playing board games).

Over the years I’ve come back to this question again and again, each time uncovering another aspect of my identity that needed adjustment. Failure has often been the catalyst.

And now I’m asking you: Why do you you like yourself?

In the game of life it’s a good idea to have a few early losses, which relieves you of the pressure of trying to maintain an undefeated season. ~Bill Vaughan Tweet This

photo credit: Sad Man via photopin (license)

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Scott WozniakHow A Bad Grade Made Me A Better Man

Famous Failures Who Won

On April 25th, my new book hits the stores. It’s titled How to Fail as a Leader: A fast-paced fable about leaders who totally biff strategy and execution but learn enough to win in the end. It’s an adventure story embedded with practical and profound leadership lessons. It’s a story of two leaders who learn about leadership the hard way—so you won’t have to.

Obviously, the title is tongue in cheek. I want you to win as a leader. But the fastest road to success runs right through failure. Tweet This My path certainly included fruitful fails. Many of the most successful people in the world, from JK Rowling to Abraham Lincoln, credit their failures as crucial to their eventual success. In fact, a friend of mine just created this sweet infographic on that. Enjoy!

Without Fail Infographic


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Scott WozniakFamous Failures Who Won

The Unique Power of Good Discussions

Last night, I had a great phone call with my personal leadership coach. Yes, everyone benefits from coaching, even leadership coaches. Tweet This It’s not just about learning from someone who knows more in a field than you. Teachers are valuable, too. But great leadership coaching helps differently than great teaching. Coaching is more about asking the right questions and creating a safe place to discuss things at a deeper level.

Discussion at TED salon

And a good discussion is more valuable than most people realize. Humans thrive when interacting with each other. We grow through deep discussions in ways no other situation can stimulate. Tweet This

I’m a leadership coach. I even train others to be leadership coaches. You might think I already know the answers—or at least the questions. But in discussion with my coach I experienced a mini-breakthrough last night, realizing for the last few weeks I’ve been coping with a stressful situation the wrong way.

This isn’t an introvert or extrovert things. This is how Jesus developed his disciples. He taught the crowds and he coached his disciples. This is why one of the central design principles of all my leadership workshops is sparking meaningful discussions between the participants. Those discussion sessions are often the highlight of the workshop.

And this is why my new leadership book, How to Fail as a Leader, includes a discussion guide at the end of each chapter. Because while I hope many people read the book, I’m even more hopeful that they will discuss the book with each other. Because a good discussion is more valuable than most people realize. Tweet This

Do you want to accelerate your growth? Find a good discussion partner. One way is to hire a personal coach. I provide that for others and work with one myself. But you can also create a lot of the same dynamic talking with a good friend.

Who do you discuss the deep things in your life with? What would it look like to do that more often?

photo credit: TEDxSKE salon: 10.03.16 via photopin (license)

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Scott WozniakThe Unique Power of Good Discussions