The Benefits of Being a Loser


“How could you do this to your daughter? You let her fail. Now she has to feel shame as well as guilt for letting the rest of the club down. How could you allow this to happen?”

Interesting, isn’t it, how leaders often believe they are responsible for others success? I wonder where that message comes from.

As a young equestrian I was involved in 4-H. My father had the distinct good fortune to be chastised by a passel of leaders for “my” failure to do well in pre-fair. Yes, I earned the horrifyingly embarrassing indicator that I was a loser; the white ribbon. In 4-H participants are judged against outlined criteria and awarded points based on individual performance. Points earn either a white, red, or blue ribbon, consecutively.

I had been allowed to fail; and watching these “leaders” tear into my father, I knew it was all a part of the plan. I knew, when we got home, we were not going to be talking about the horse, the class, my performance, or the 4-H club. Knowing my father as I did, I now knew what I had set myself up for. I knew a “learning moment” enroute when I saw it. We would be having a conversation about my father’s broken record topics; cause and effect behavior, accountability, self-respect, and choices.

Yes, there were those perfectly poised to hold my father accountable for my failure. Just as there are many leaders MORE than willing to accept responsibility for the failure-and success- of those that report to them.

The reality of this particular situation was simple. My father and I had had more than one conversation regarding the upcoming pre-fair. I had attended the 4-H meetings in which it was discussed what I was to be practicing for the upcoming event. My father checked in to determine if I knew what I was to be practicing. This 12-year old consistently responded, “Yep! I know what I am supposed to be practicing.” He even asked a couple of times if I had been practicing. “Ummm, yeah. Kinda. I have time.”

Instead, I rode the trails. I herded farmer Jones’ cows. I played horse tag and Indian rider with the other kids in the valley. What I did not do was practice showmanship, western pleasure, or my bareback equitation seat.

Therefore, the day of the show, I failed to score enough points for even a red ribbon. I…was a white ribbon performer.

To this day I remember my father’s response to the accusations of his failure to live up to his parental duties and see to my success-his out and out abuse of his child. He, in that way that he had, calmly asked a question, more to himself I think than to anybody else, “Let me think, I am trying to remember, what is the overall purpose of the 4-H organization? I am struggling with it, does anyone else recall? It seems to me it has something to do with the development of young people to become contributing adults?”

This, by the way, was my key indicator of the “learning moment” in store for me.

“The cost to my daughter of developing her life skills may be to not win that blue ribbon, and that is her price to pay.” He went on, “What I accept is your judgment of me and my desire to teach my daughter how to accept the outcome of her choices and to be accountable for her own behavior.  My daughter’s adult future is far more important to me than today’s show results, regardless of how you may feel about me in this moment. My purpose as a parent is not to seek your approval, but to ensure she has the skills she needs to be successful in life-similar to the overall 4-H program.”

Even at twelve years old I knew this was not going to be an easy concept for the leaders of the 4-H clubs to accept, yet, I knew I was going to be held to this unwaveringly.

The idea that those in “charge” are responsible for the success of those they lead remains a trouble area for many leaders. What is more important; short term wins, or long term success? Enabling produces one, developing produces the later.

One of the key flaws in leadership is the missing element of self-leadership. Wouldn’t leaders be far more effective if they themselves and those they led were able to self-direct and self-manage? Then leadership is less about taking responsibility for others-their successes and failures-and more about developing skills and knowledge to be self-directed and self-managed.

When County Fair rolled around that summer, you can bet your bottom dollar I was far more prepared, and performed at a much higher level! Did my father have to tell me to practice? Of course not, I learned my lesson. As an adult do I fully understand the concept of cause and effect? You can bet the whole budget on that one!

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