Rice U. expert: Leaders need to understand fear of failure


David Ruth

Jeff Falk

Rice U. expert: Leaders need to understand fear of failure

HOUSTON — (Feb. 27, 2018) — Leaders — and especially those who aspire to be leaders — need to understand the powerful impact the fear of failure can have on themselves and others, according to Tom Kolditz, a leadership scholar and director of Rice University’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders.

Tom Kolditz. Credit: U.S. Air Force Academy

Kolditz discussed his insights during a keynote he gave at the United States Air Force Academy’s annual National Character and Leadership Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., Feb. 22. Click here to watch the video of the keynote. He is available to discuss with the media the sources of fear of failure and how to manage that fear.

Kolditz told the conference audience that fear of failure “can get under our skin. It impacts the way that you develop … and it will impact the way you make decisions about leading. You have to understand this about yourself and the people around you, because the higher you go as a leader, the more you’re going to be asking people to do difficult things. Probably a third of them are really worried about letting you down. They’re really worried about the impact it’s going to have not just on their career, but on them as a person, on their own self-esteem and their own self-discipline and self-respect.”

Kolditz said fear of failure is a constant factor in any organization, and many people avoid discussing failure when it occurs. “There are members of the (cadet) class who are pretty concerned about failure right now,” Kolditz told the audience. “This is not unique to the Air Force Academy. It’s just the way high-performing people are. Failure hurts. It’s painful when things don’t go our way.”

Fear of failure and making mistakes can handicap people’s careers, Kolditz said. “If you try to do things that are challenging, if you go after the hard jobs, if you go after the tough missions, it’s not always going to go your way,” he said. “If you turn them down because you’re afraid of making a mistake or you’re afraid of failing, then you’re going to plateau out, and perhaps far too early.”

Kolditz biography:

Prior to joining Rice, Kolditz taught as a professor in the practice of leadership and management and director of the Leadership Development Program at the Yale School of Management.

Kolditz led the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at West Point for 12 years. In that role, he was responsible for West Point’s teaching, research and outreach activities in management, leader development science, psychology and sociology and was appointed professor emeritus after retirement. His career has focused on either leading organizations himself or studying leadership and leadership policy across sectors.

Kolditz served for two years as a leadership and human resources policy analyst in the Pentagon and for a year as a concept developer in the Center for Army Leadership. He was the founding director of the West Point Leadership Center. He was instrumental in the design and formation of the Thayer Leader Development Group and is the managing member of Saxon Castle LLC, a leader development consultancy. Kolditz is a recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal, the Army’s second-highest award in order of precedence, and recently received the Warren Bennis Award. He is the author of “In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It,” which explains how leadership lessons and principles in dangerous settings also apply to leading in business and everyday life.

Kolditz holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from Vanderbilt University, three master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Missouri.

To schedule an interview with Kolditz, contact Jeff Falk, associate director of national media relations at Rice, at 713-348-6775 or jfalk@rice.edu.

Rice University has a VideoLink ReadyCam TV interview studio. ReadyCam is capable of transmitting broadcast-quality standard-definition and high-definition video directly to all news media organizations around the world 24/7.


This news release can be found online at http://news.rice.edu.

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Related materials:

Tom Kolditz bio: https://doerr.rice.edu/content/tom-kolditz-0

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.