American culture embraces the idea that failure is often nothing but a prerequisite to success. However, lots of people simply fail--and that becomes the end of the story.

The difference comes in learning how to study your failures and apply the lessons effectively.

Recently, I've come across two really persuasive approaches to failing successfully.

The first is from Craig Mullaney, a West Point graduate, Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan who wrote a bestselling book and now works at Facebook. The second is by the coauthors of the book, The Other F-Word, John Danner and Mark Coopersmith, writing recently in The Wall Street Journal.

I recommend both articles to you (you can find them here and here). In the meantime, here are their five combined biggest takeaways about what great leaders do when things go wrong.

1. Create a culture that encourages candor around failure.

The best example I know of this is at Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corporation, where the CEO encourages employees to write the things they mess up on a public "failure wall." Acknowledging mistakes becomes easier when we see others doing the same--and then learning from them and improving.

"Executives need to start by acknowledging their own fallibility, Danner and Coopersmith write. "Sharing a few personal failures, especially where they demonstrate how some ultimately contributed to future successes, encourages others to be more open, sooner, about potential failures-in-the-making."

2. Recognize that learning requires figuring out what happened.

This is common sense--but frankly it's the kind that's not all that common. If you hope to learn from your failures, it stands to reason that you should study what happened and come up with an agreed-upon narrative explaining the facts.

"No one is ever in the same battle--people come to the after action review with conflicting memories," Mullaney says. "You don't need to have a perfect version of the truth to learn from it."

3. Reassure and set expectations for the review.

Even when the boss understands the reasons for examining failures, that doesn't mean his or her team understands. They might be understandably concerned that the real goal is to point fingers or find scapegoats. They might simply be worried about keeping their jobs.

So, as Mullaney explains, you have to be explicit that the effort is not supposed to become "a blame game or finger-pointing exercise. It's a learning process ... There's always room for improvement. The only way to improve is by reflecting honestly on what happened."

4. Ask good, nonjudgmental questions.

Make sure your inquiry reflects the overall strategy you've set out. In other words, don't begin by assuring everyone that the goal is to assess what went wrong simply to improve future performance--and then launch into an inquisition of what only one team member did wrong.

"Start with the more important 'what, where, how and why?' questions in a spirit of genuine inquiry rather than witch hunt," Danner and Coopersmith write. "It encourages trust and openness, not to mention better understanding of what strategic changes are needed."

5. Remember that some things probably went right.

There's a lot to be learned from success as well, and that means it's likely a smart idea to conduct a similar inquiry after successful projects, too. Ask the same kinds of questions to figure out what repeatable processes people used to achieve positive results. 

"Failure is a strategic resource. Like the people you employ, the money you spend or the facilities and technologies you use, it has unique intrinsic value if you're open and wise enough to manage it as such," Danner and Coopersmith write. "After all, you've already paid its tuition. You might as well get the education that goes with it."

Published on: Oct 29, 2015
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