Failing Happy: Reflections from Ashridge

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In December 2013, I had the great privilege of attending an immersive experience facilitated by Steve Chapman on Creative Practices in leadership.  Being that December 2015 has come and gone, and I have spent the last few days reflecting as we have rolled into January 2016, I realized that this was a story worth sharing, because it is about "Failing Happy," especially as I look forward to some of the new things I may try this year!

Here I retell the experience from Ashridge, taken from the book, Can Scorpions Smoke? Creative Adventures in the Corporate World:

Before I came to Ashridge, I participated in a simulation exercise where I volunteered to be the CEO.  I failed miserably.  By the time we made it to Ashridge for our workshops, my heart had gone through a lot of emotions.  I cried because of how I let my colleagues down.  I felt the need to defend myself and quickly recognized I really couldn't.  I was afraid I was going to lose my friendships.  I felt humiliated.  I knew that the simulation could have gone either way but I wanted it to be successful.  I also knew that, no matter what the outcome would be, I just needed to do it anyway.  I needed to get to know what I was afraid of and it felt pretty safe to do it in a simulation. 

I didn't realize the intensity that would come from the exercise though, in particular hearing others express themselves about how I performed in the CEO role.  I had to listen and accept the responsibility for the ways in which I just simply failed.  When we got to Ashridge, I felt even more open to what I would learn and when the words Fail Happy appeared on the wall, I felt tears come to my eyes.  I had failed miserably in front of my colleagues in many ways just a few days earlier, but now I was able to realize that the risk was worth taking because I had actually failed happy.  However, I did not have a huge smile on my face and say, "Wow, that was so great!  Did you see how I screwed that up, hurt your feelings, and made a mess of things?!!! Woo!!!"

No, my failing happy was different.  I was happy because I took a risk in front of my class, not really knowing the outcome.  I was happy because I learned really important lessons.  I was happy because I had a great opportunity to listen to how people felt about the experience.  I failed happy because I needed to grow.  I failed happy because I was the recipient of an amazing experience, watching people's emotions, listening to their questions, and knowing what it feels like to really have to own when you just don't know what to do.  It is one thing to talk about the concept of failing happy, but it is only through experiencing it and taking the time to make sense of it, even through a simulation, that you really begin to get what it is all about.


Grace And Truth In Leadership

The Balance of Grace and Truth in Leadership

The breathless melodies are intoxicating for the listener engaging in response to Keith Jarrett and his beautiful classical compositions.  Then, unexpectedly and equally mesmerizing is the groove of jazz, improvising with the greats like Miles Davis and Chick Corea.  

Keith Jarrett is a renowned musician, thought to be one of the most prolific of the late 20th century, and considered one of the “masters of improvisation.” As described in the documentary, The Art of Improvisation, the narrator describes Jarrett: “Keith Jarrett is that rare combination, a great jazz improviser and classical pianist . . . Keith has also written classical compositions for others to play.  He has used the sounds of classical music to discover his own journey.” (, 2013)

In exploring leadership in the coming years, achieving the balance of grace in leadership is like the ability a musician has to improvise.  Distinguishing the ability of one musician to improvise from another who cannot is a matter of internalization, not memorization, of a song.  It is not a matter of notes.  It is really a sense of harmonic awareness.  It is the intimate knowledge of a song, so intimate that it allows the musicians to take a risk in the performance without being too dependent upon the composition itself.  It is really defining the difference between internalization and memorization.  To compare to Keith Jarrett, it is the unique ability to master both classical music, dependent upon notation, and jazz, dependent upon improvisation.  The ability as a leader in the coming years to balance truth and grace, structure and improvisation, policy and creative freedom is the way to release from the limitations.  The basis for innovation is not solely dependent on one or the other.  Civil rights law is policy born out of the expression of freedom from oppression.  The law protects where awareness lacks.

As a leader, where should the focus ultimately be held? Is it possible to create a safe environment where people are respected?  Is there a way to coach people into developing a mind that moves beyond the judgment of their perceptions?  Is it possible for leaders to begin to move beyond, “perception is reality” and search for truth?  Grace must be present on the journey to truth, and leaders of the future must be committed to seeking this truth.  Being a gracious leader is not weakness; it is the ability to understand that a person’s existence is not only in one moment.  Using the example of improvisation in jazz, the leader is not merely allowing creative freedom or willing to give up his or her own spotlight to allow the others to shine.   In that willingness to let go, the leader is actually pushing the other musicians to a new place.  They are not willing to settle for the learned behaviors, but rather challenging the band members to stretch themselves to grow, immediately on the spot.  At that moment, the learned knowledge becomes the basis of the innovation, and the band members, including the leader, are equals.  When that happens, the norm immediately changes and a new structure becomes your base, which then pushes each one into yet another opportunity to be challenged. 

In those moments, each of the members has a choice.  The leader is recognizing that ability to choose, and rather than fighting it, they give in to it.  This leader lets the rest of the team own it, which requires them to be willing to listen to the others.  If they are not listening intimately to where the music is going, and what each member is contributing, and they are not both self-aware and socially aware, they lose confidence and don’t play anything at all, or they hold the team back because they want to stay safe while the others are pushing forward.

Stephen R. Covey states, “If you can put the new skill-set of synergy together with the new mind-set of interdependence, you have the perfect one-two punch for achieving competitive advantage.  When you have the mind-set and the skill-set, you create effective structures, systems, and processes that are aligned with your vision and mission.” (Covey, 1996)

In exploring this idea of grace, the limited view of elegance or generosity of spirit cannot be enough in the coming years.  As stated above, improvisation certainly allows for the forgiveness of mistakes so that it frees people to actually pursue.  This type of grace is transforming if partnered with the truth.  After informally interviewing several people regarding the fit for grace in leadership, not one person was simply accepting of only one side to the story. 

Grace must be a catalyst for change.  The grace that is defined in improvisation is the challenge to allow others to exist with purpose in any given moment.  In leadership at any level, the ability to drive others toward purpose will be necessary for transformation.  The leader’s ability to discern the needs of others in the moment will drive that transformation.  Leaders must be willing to challenge the innate need for purpose rather than dwelling on the acceptance of the policy that keeps a person bound in things that essentially don’t matter or limit them from their own true capabilities.  For example, if the United States had continued to accept the law of slavery, and worked within the confines of that law, change would never have happened.  The acceptance of that law was accepting the oppression of others and not allowing them to have freedom over their own lives. 

The lack of purpose and meaning, and the willingness of organizations and societies to tolerate actions motivated by fear ultimately leads to change.  Great leaders are willing to sense this change and are willing to take risks, using deep emotional awareness centered on valuing life.   A leader maintains a healthy recognition of when people are becoming fatigued and intolerant of mindless contribution and feelings of worthlessness associated with living numb to their emotions.  A leader that will be willing to press on those emotions may have the opportunity to engage people in a revolutionary way, not simply giving them an opportunity to thrive in the workplace, but to thrive at home, and may begin to push on the nerves that will compel them to contribute meaningfully in society as a whole. 

This is moving beyond perception and into reality; the pursuit of truth, listening to the people who you are interacting with on a daily basis.  This leader is willing to graciously accept others in the moment, but be ready for anything, especially in tune when it is time for change.  It will then be critical for that leader to be fearless in leading through that change. 

It is like that of Keith Jarrett’s description of jazz improvisation:  “There’s never been a time when improvisation was given the respect it deserves. By virtue of the holistic quality of it, it takes everything to do it.  It takes real time, no editing possible.  It takes your nervous system to be on alert for every possible thing.  In a way that cannot be said for any other kind of music.” (, 2013)

Luxe Rose Box

Have you ever loved a rose,
and watched her slowly bloom;
And as her petals would unfold,
you grew drunk on her perfume.

Have you ever seen her dance,
Her leaves all wet with dew;
And quivered with new romance—
The wind, he loved her too.

-Lang Leuv

Designing Client Gifts

One aspect of my work has always been discovering ways to delight clients.  One of those ways is to come up with a creative gift that will "speak" the appropriate message, offer a simple pleasure and express appreciation. 

A box full of cheery roses can do just that, especially when working on intense leadership and emotional intelligence work.  Opening up to places in ourselves that require deep work is not for the faint of heart, and is the ultimate act of self-love.  How appropriate to receive a luxe rose box as a symbol of the journey to flourishing.

This creative idea was found on a chic DIY site, A Pair and a Spare.




Christmas Things

Our family is enjoying the holiday season, keeping some old and inviting some new traditions and new Christmas things.   Our mantle is always a place for a few of my favorite things, and most recently features a hand-crafted piece by artisans from Trades of Hope, an inspiring company making a difference in the lives of women all around the world. 

And, as you can see, my daughters keep me entertained!   It is fun as they get older to bring them and their friends on trips to local artisan shows, a new tradition that started with us a couple of years ago.  And all my kids help me decorate, wrap gifts, bake,  & shop now!

From our house to yours, may you experience blessings, peace and joy this holiday season.

Designing a Thriving Family: The Family Core

Family is a powerful force, capable of amazing things together. 

Just like any group, community, company, or church, the family has an incredible energy that is ready to be unleashed for excellence.  Often, though, we are dragged into negativity and our own defeating thoughts, most likely reinforced by severe losses and tough experiences, or even the difficulty of simply keeping up with daily demands.

Do you know a family that has experienced the following?

Death of a parent

Loss of a child

Financial gain and loss

Wondering where the next meal may come

Marital strife


Silent treatment

Fear of success

Fear of failure

Fear of being known

Sickness, illness, suffering

Dying friendships

Isolation and loneliness

Chances are, you do, or you have experienced them yourself.  And you probably know other families who have experienced different things, or have had even more than their fair share of hardships in their lifetime.

Our family has known hardships and setbacks, too.

In order to truly resonate as a family and get into transformational space, we can be radical.  I believe in transformation and discovering what brings out the best in a family.  I am grateful to witness it daily in my own life.  When we are in difficult times and places, it is hard to see past those places.  We need ways of understanding how to dwell fully in the present and dream of possibility for the future.   And we need a framework for our family to guide us through the best of times and worst of times to maintain our resilience.

When my husband and I were discussing this post, we both agreed we loved the term "Family Revolution."  That is what we believe in . . . we believe in the possibility of thriving and whole families, and that transformation is within our reach.  So, we decided to experiment with looking at all that we appreciate about our family, identifying the core elements that will carry us through all of life's transitions.

Appreciative Inquiry will be our guide in learning to build the family’s positive core.  This is not a guarantee for a problem-proof family, but it is a powerful tool for unleashing “what gives life” and understanding the freedom to dwell in a positive family state.

Many of us think that our ideal is a far off and ever unrealized pleasure that we are not entitled to truly receive.  So, first we have to open our heart and mind to possibility.   No matter what we have experienced, there are things to draw from and appreciate that are at the core of you (and your family) today that will carry you into the future you desire. 

First, some basic definitions:

Appreciate:  To value, recognize the best in people or the world around us.


Inquire: to explore and discover, ask questions, be open to seeing new potentials and possibilities. 


Then, we have to understand important elements that Appreciative Inquiry (AI), brings to the table.


1.     AI creates a context in which people are Free to Be Known in Relationship.

As unique individuals and as part of a web of relationships, not just on their role in the family.

2.     AI makes a space in which people are Free to be Heard.

Actively listening, curiosity and openness to know each other with compassion.  A true invitation for family members to be heard and offer ideas.

3.     AI opens the opportunity for people to be Free to Dream in Community.

Creating a safe place for sharing dreams with one another.

4.    AI establishes an environment where people are Free to Choose to Contribute.

Providing a place where individuals can learn their deepest calling.  Offering freedom to choose do projects.  In a family setting with younger kids, it may not always be easy, but there need to be places where each family member is free to make a choice on stretching out of their comfort zone in order to learn creativity, determination, dedication and commitment. 

5.     AI provides the context for people to be Free to Act with Support.

Positive interdependence.  Recognition that you care about the contributions of each family member.  Acting with support makes family members feel safe to experiment, innovate, and learn.  At each stage of progression and development with children, the approach to this concept may have to change, too. 

6.     AI opens the way for people to be Free to be Positive.

"The effect of AI is so strong and powerful that it can even transform deficit discourse and negative thinking."  This process gives your family permission to feel positive and be proud rather than being buried in complaining, criticism, and negativity.


(all above referenced from the Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, For Leaders of Change, 2nd Edition)

And now the 4-D Cycle of AI:


Then, we break it down to understand Discovery, which is where we will focus to explore the family core.

“It is through the sharing of ideals that social bonding occurs.”—AI Handbook

The discovery phase is where we identify what gives life and appreciate the best of what is through the sharing of stories of exceptional accomplishments, peak times, and core life-giving factors of an organization (so, instead of an organization, we will use our family).

To begin to discover the positive core of my own family, I started to look at themes.


From those themes, I then looked at different topics:

Then, I chose the following questions:

What is it that you enjoy the most about being a part of our family?

What are some of your favorite moments of our family together?


The questions are grounded in appreciation and inquiring about the “best of what is.”  So, while we certainly did have tough times in our family, we are able to draw out the positives through all our experiences.

These may even be topics that come naturally for families to share when they are gathered around the table.  In my case, I wanted to select questions that I knew all my kids could respond to, regardless of their ages.  You may not have children yet or your children may be too young to express these things, so you may have to identify the best of what is with only your spouse or soon-to-be spouse in order to understand your vision for the future.   You may be on your own, and want to work with your extended family.  Maybe you have had a torn apart family, or a family that is disengaged, disconnected or dysfunctional.  Maybe you are a family counselor reading this article, and would like a different method or approach to restoring families.  Whatever the case may be, this method will draw from the core life-giving factors--those same factors that gave you hope for your family in the first place.

When asking the questions, one key is to listen with openness, engaged in really wanting to hear the answers.   If you want to take it one step further, take notes of the responses so you can later remember some of the specific things that they shared.


Our Family AI

What is that you enjoy the most about being a part of our family?



We like to cook and take turns cooking

We love each other (I know, pretty general, but important!)

We try to do things together

We play outside together (baseball, football)

We work through things and try to resolve conflict

We are resilient

We care about people

We all are musical

We like to read

(Illustrations by AA & R)


 "We Love Each Other"

"We Love Each Other"


Seeing the unique gifts of each of our kids, and seeing the gifts that I have, and how those are connected.  I embrace my gift of music more as a continuum of the next generation . . . it is not a gift unless it is truly given away.  So, being able to give that gift to my kids . . . music, time, anything . . . makes me appreciate and realize how we share these strengths with each other over time, where our kids feel safe to express those gifts, regardless if it will ever be shared with the world.  This creates meaning in our relationships.

Conversation.  We will talk about hard things, good things, funny things.  We like to talk around the table, sometimes using a question of the day.  We will use creative questions like, "If you could have your own planet, what would be on your planet and what would you name it?" to questions like, "What was the hardest thing you had to do today?" or "What was your favorite part of the day?"

What are some of your favorite moments of our family together?

When we went to the beach and we found a giant fish and a tiny fish, and we all tried going in the water.  I was doing back-tucks on the beach.  Gio and I went out and started going under water—having a hunt to find more fish.

Going to Pennsylvania to the cabin.  It was fun to stay up late and play pool and watch movies together.  And we played in the creek and went hiking.

When we all went to the zoo.  We saw a lion and I felt happy!

Doing music together.

Going to Chicago with all our family.  It was the first time I rode a 4-wheeler with dad.  And we were doing fun activities, and got to go swimming, and have fun together.

I love playing football in the front yard.  It is so simple, but it is another way that I bring the full experience of my own childhood, and a piece of my father to my kids.  My dad and his family played football with us, and that was a positive for me.  So, I enjoy doing that with my kids.   We laugh, we have fun . . . I usually lose!  But, I love that it teaches us to win and lose right here in our own front yard.

The promotions and graduations . . . all of ours.  All the way from kindergarten to college.  They are great achievements, but it is showing me in a small, but not subtle way, that our kids will have what it takes to transition through life.  These moments are not without struggles.  Each of our kids has a great “resolve” within themselves to keep trying. 

Now, from these responses, we can pick up some key elements and themes.  It is like a mystery novel, where the clues are woven into the story leading to a brilliant--sometimes expected and sometimes unexpected--ending.

So, taking the themes, the topics and the questions, we apply our stories and responses.


We enjoy and value learning:  you will often find us with a book in our hands, or reading on our tablets.  We are curious,  we experiment (we like to cook dinner, take turns being a chef, or making meals, taking adventures), and embrace creative/artistic expression (art/music is a norm in our family life).  We celebrate accomplishments and achievements.


We care about people.  Even in such a simple statement, our family knows that we care because we are part of a community and we all volunteer in different capacities as we are able, from small to large activities, we try to make it a point to be a part of community in some way.  We also embrace conversation . . . it is a part of life in our home.


We create safe spaces: quiet places, creative “yes” spaces, and active/energy places.  With these particular questions, the emerging theme was how we create active/energy places (hiking, playing outside, going to the zoo, going to the beach, going on trips).  We definitely have creative "yes" places--meaning, we can experiment with cooking, we do art, we make music.  It also ties back to the learning component . . . we are willing to try new things. 


We have a routine of having dinner around the table together.  Our family knows how important that is, and it is something that we cherish.  We also play together.  While some may not think it is a tradition, my dad's family played football, so we try to play football with our kids. Celebrations are also traditions, and how you celebrate is your own family tradition.


We embrace the gifts of each individual in the home, which ties to their ability to be free to contribute.  Each one of them offers something to the family, and if we can honor that gift, we will do our best to honor it.  My husband and I also try to pass along our gifts and talents to our family, through music, people skills, math . . . whatever it is that allows us to contribute to their needs.  We also do our best to experience gratitude for the present and what we have, bringing every day joy through all our adventures, big and small.

Emotional Awareness

As said before, we believe in conversation, listening, understanding needs/wants, and practice at understanding instead of judging.  We work through things and try to resolve conflict.  We know there will be bad days, which also contribute to learning experiences.  Sometimes family life can just be really rough.  We learn to forgive, fight fair, to change our approaches, work on patience.


We love each other, do things together, we celebrate, we talk, we learn to win and lose, fail and thrive.  This allows our family a safe space to dream:  have goals, recognize individual contributions, bring hope to the future.


Questions can be crafted around any of the themes and topic choices to draw out the “best of what is” in your family.  This is how to start to build the family core.  And as you discover and identify this core, you will be able to develop a vision for your family’s future.  It will be based on individual and collective strengths and rooted in shared experiences.  It will be what you come back to during the times of stress and suffering to maintain resilience.

The great thing about these concepts is that no matter where you are in your family right now, you can start to apply change through changing the dialogue.  You may not walk through the whole process above--you may simply just have a meal together and ask questions about your family's best moments, listening intently to what each person shares.  It does not have to be formal.  It can just be a simple change in approach.

". . . you suddenly realize the essence of this wonderful idea of appreciative inquiry—that we can actually be in the moment we are in, working toward the change we want to realize, and that this be-ing with each other is the change happening, as we engage.  We do not have to plan for it, measure it, wait for a date to have it, or announce that it is here; positive change is what life—living—can be all about.  It is not a Cartesian concept to be objectified or even measured as much as it is the quality of experience—of being connected to others in shared hopes, activities, and exchanges that help each of us to flourish in the moment.”  --Ronald Fry



Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2008). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, For Leaders of Change (2nd Edition ed.). Brunswick, OH: Crown Custom Publishing, Inc.