Forgive me for trying

Forgive me for trying

The future ahead of us will be shaped by the leaders fighting to solve large challenges. Change agents and creative leaders are sensitive to the need for an upheaval and work toward creating a new status quo that empowers communities to shape a better tomorrow. These leaders learn to think beyond what they were taught and undo the current situation to give us a new version of reality that moves us into a better tomorrow. They learn how to do this away from books, tests, and traditional schooling, but with bravery, attempts, failures, and learning.


How can we recognize this kind of leadership, and what does it need for the future we envision? The 21st-century skills provide a useful framework.

How it was before

The traditional education system, like schools and universities, provide an environment that encloses a privileged group of people within a set structure. Achievements are graded through a system that monitors discipline and memory, attendance, and participation. Schools aim to teach data analysis, finance, organizational behavior, process, and strategy, but these classroom basics never replace the experience of trying it out on the field. Universities set their students up for a protected version of success, but in life and when solving societal challenges, change agents need to try what hasn’t been before. They must combine these with new ideas and skillsets that computers cannot genuinely replicate. An earned set of street smarts and perseverance add an immeasurable amount of creativity in pursuit of the big goal.

Forgive me for trying
Change agents must combine news ideas with skill sets that computers cannot replicate. An earned set of street smarts and perseverance add an immeasurable amount of creativity in pursuit of the big goal. #creativeleadership Click To Tweet

Learning through experience

Leaders are not a case of nature/nurture, but rise to the occasion as needed. Leadership is a call to action, one that seizes opportunity even if skills are not yet entirely developed – they trust in their ability to learn on the field. Trying, miscalculating, falling, picking oneself up, and becoming a more skillful and learned person is what forms a leader. Their journey is developmental and riddled with failures by design.

The 21st-century skills

To navigate this space filled with attempt and intense competition, a host of new abilities have been introduced to tomorrow’s leaders. The 21st-century skills all increasingly recognize that which separates those who are prepared for increasingly complex life and work environments in the future eras. These skillsets are divided into four Cs of Creativity, Critical thinking, Communication, and Collaboration. In addition, effective leaders must also create, evaluate, and effectively use information, media, and technology and master a slate of more general skills: adaptability, initiative, self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity, deep self-awareness, and responsibility. New generations are being taught how to lead their life with purpose toward social good. (Read THNK Class 6 Yvonne Biggin’s dissertation on Purpose in Adolescence.) Jack Ma of Alibaba is pushing to create new school curriculums entirely based on Values, Believing, Independent Thinking, Empathy, as well as cultural and competitive development from sports, music, and art. “Everything we teach is knowledge based, which will never compete with computers.”

The fundamental skill sets for the 21st-century are further divided in a framework of with three categories: Four Cs of Learning and Innovation include critical thinking and problem solving, creativity, communication, collaboration; Digital Literacy focuses on information, media and ICT; Career and Life balances flexibility & adaptability, initiative & self-direction, social and cross-cultural interaction, productivity and accountability, leadership and responsibility.

21st-century skills
The fundamental skill sets for the 21st-century include critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration, digital literacy, flexibility, and adaptability. #leadership #creativeleadership Click To Tweet

Forgive me for trying

All of this demands a lot of one person. A big risk is that leaders themselves give up – run out of fuel, encounter a massive failure, or lose their team. The path to success is never the same, and survivorship bias tells the stories of those who made it and discards the stories of those who failed. We often misestimate how much impact one can have – how many scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs, and inventors were instrumental to our evolution but received no glory nor fame, not even a good story to tell at the end. Failing is an integral part of the leader’s journey. Can we as a society be more forgiving of our failing leaders to avoid they give up? Can we create a culture that celebrates failures?

A culture of encouragement

For a failure culture to work, it must be accompanied by an environment of psychological security. Everyone in the team must feel deeply supported to dare to take risks. That is much more than a pat on the back if something has not succeeded. It means that individuals feel and experience again and again that as long as they keep trying, without being desperate or reckless, in pursuit of a meaningful goal, they will never lose their self-respect, even if they encounter major failure.

Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School, formulates three ingredients to create psychological safety in a knowledge economy. Firstly, make it clear to teams that the work is not an execution problem, but a learning problem; second, stimulate curiosity; and thirdly, recognize your own fallibility. We add that it is important to realize that in almost all cases failure is not permanent, there is always another day.

This requires a lot of creative leaders who manage innovation teams. Most employees understand that in a world characterized by uncertainty, and the only way forward is one of exploration. Stimulating curiosity is becoming more difficult. It is not that simple to create, under performance and time pressure, space to ask difficult questions, to diverge, and remain open to alternative versions of reality. The final last ingredient, the recognition of one’s shortcomings, may require leaders to do the impossible. After all, all leaders will tell you how often they must do the lonely dance between two polarities: the radiating of unshakeable trust and showing their own fallibility.

21st-century skills
In a world characterized by uncertainty, the only way forward is one of exploration. #uncertainty #creativeleadership #disruption Click To Tweet

So where does this leave us? We conclude that leadership is developed not in classrooms, but in the paths of experimentation. Stepping out of the ordinary and trying new roads others haven’t, to find what is blocking society from reaching its healthy balance. Attempting a dream can lead to failures which should be leveraged for learning and improvement. It is a lonely job, so let’s keep connecting to these risk-takers on a human level. More than a need for a new type of leadership there might be a need for a new way to encourage each other to step up, risk, fail and keep moving.

To master the leadership skills of the 21st-century, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.