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Lesson 1: (VaYikra): “When” a ruler has sinned: Dealing with failure at work
“A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” ––John Burroughs
“When a ruler has sinned and done something through ignorance against any one of the commandments of the Lord his God concerning things which should not be done and has incurred guilt; or if his sin, wherein he has sinned, come to his knowledge; he shall bring his offering, a kid of the goats, a male without blemish” Leviticus 4:22–23.
Now that the Tabernacle’s construction has been completed as the Book of Exodus ends, the Book of Leviticus now focuses on the types of animal or grain offerings and sacrifices to be made on the Tabernacle’s altar for various occasions, especially to rectify infractions of the commandments. Leviticus Chapter 4 begins by listing the kinds of persons liable for these sacrifices. No one is exempt: the individual, the priest, and the leaders. Interestingly, the first categories are introduced by “If a person sins unintentionally…,” “If the anointed priest sins…,” and “And if the entire community of Israel errs…,” but when it comes to the leaders, we are told: “When a ruler has sinned….” This instance implies the inevitability of a ruler’s (or leader’s) sin, at least inadvertently, whether in their private lives or public duties.
Rashi (14th century, France), in his classic commentary on Leviticus 4:22, notes the Hebrew word for “when” (אשר; asher) carries the same letters as the Hebrew word for happy or fortunate (osher). He offers an analysis that can easily be attributed to today’s leaders: “Fortunate is the generation whose leader [does not hold himself too high, but rather is careful to bring an atonement offering for his unintentional sins; and how much more so will he experience remorse for the sins he has committed willfully!” Rashi’s comment attests to the exceptionality of a leader who acknowledges their sins––perhaps due to the dynamics inherent in political leadership––whether deliberate or unintentional.
Who hasn’t had some failure at work? Blunders for managers or employees, such as missed calculations, inaccurate assumptions, hiring the wrong person, or losing a client, are inevitable at work; acknowledging them has important ramifications for the individual and the organization. For instance, job interviewers may ask for an example of how you have dealt with failure. This is a kind of ‘trick’ question. Note that the interviewer didn’t ask if you’ve ever experienced failure. The embedded presupposition is, “Certainly, you’ve experienced failure; we all have. We want to know how you dealt with it.”
Are you a person who acknowledges failure and learns from it, or will you be an employee whose knee-jerk response turns to external causes (a colleague’s carelessness, a fluke, ‘my first day on the job,’ the computer was down)? Or will you recognize a misstep or a miscalculation and take measures to derive insights that could be applied to future efforts? Thus, my recommended response would be to relate a story where you identify the context, describe your actions, the intended outcome, the undesired outcome, how you deciphered what led to it, and how you ensured the reasons behind the disappointment wouldn’t recur.
In a leadership role, the stakes are critical. President Kennedy’s classic acknowledgment of his responsibility for the U.S. Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba in 1961 (a failed military landing) wounded up boosting his support. Here’s what he said: “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.” No less important were the lessons JFK derived regarding the decision-making process for foreign interventions in the future.
In a much more recent example (March 2023), Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis responded to public outcry following a disastrous train collision, saying, “we cannot, will not, and must not hide behind human error.”–a significant, but perhaps tardy, acknowledgment of responsibility. Indeed, this late-coming statement seemed insufficient to quell public protests.
Indeed, the case has been made that analyzing and learning from failure will likely be more productive than analyzing success. Success may be too easily attributed to the individual’s or team’s talents and strategy while disregarding external events or fortuitous developments that may have accounted for the positive outcome. Thus, assuming responsibility for success (“We must have done everything right!”) could lead to a measure of overconfidence that may not portend future success.
Above all, whereas leaders need to be right most of the time, accountability for failures sets a high moral and professional standard that contributes to the organizational culture. An individual worker cannot be expected to be the only person on the team to acknowledge failure; acknowledging and learning from failure needs to be a top-down dynamic. Tammy Perkins, a Chief People Officer at Pacific Market International, suggests that leaders adopt a direct approach, offering straightforward apologies with no qualifications, such as: “I’m sorry that I … (explain the mistake)”; “I understand that it caused … (explain the impact)”; “I can only imagine what impact it caused to … (explain how it affected a specific person or group)”.
Leaders confident enough to be transparent regarding their mistakes can become role models for others, building a culture of trust and safety, thus facilitating candid discourse that can contribute to future achievements. “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward”––Vernon Sanders Law (former pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates).
- I’ve often heard job seekers lamenting how they failed their job interviews. My typical response to them was that they were undoubtedly disappointed they didn’t get the job. Still, the experience was neither a failure nor a waste unless nothing was taken from the experience and new insights were not applied to the next job application: Were you asked some uncomfortable questions? Can you think of a better response? Do you still think this type of job is right for you? Did you forget to mention some achievements that you thought would be appropriate? What did you notice about the interviewer’s (and your) body language?
- People like to avoid failing because it’s uncomfortable, negatively impacts their self-image, and misses an opportunity to impress others. However, looking only at the bottom line may risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Any failed project will include aspects that did work out and should be retained for the future. Thus, analyzing failures can best be accomplished in a tranquil setting where all aspects of the project are addressed, focusing on actions, not people, and certainly not ascribing blame. However, this analysis may need to wait until all aboard have calmed down, and the shock has dissipated.
- Try this: Responses to failure run the gamut from seeking ways to deny responsibility to berating oneself over and over. Neither extreme is helpful. It’s always best to place this incident into perspective. That can be best accomplished by tapping into your feelings, even irrational ones, and sharing them with a trusted colleague.
 Weinreb, T. H. (2021). Forgiving fallibility. Likutei Divrei Torah, 27(23), 3–4.
 Gino, F., & Pisano, G. P. (2011, April). Why leaders don’t learn from success. Harvard Business Review Magazine. https://hbr.org/2011/04/why-leaders-dont-learn-from-success
Roepe, L. R. (2020, February). When leaders make mistakes. HR Magazine, SHRM. https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/spring2020/pages/when-leaders-make-mistakes.aspx