Failure comes in all shapes and sizes.

There are small failures, like the time in college when I had my new girlfriend over for dinner and served her a homemade strawberry milkshake that included chopped up bits of wooden spoon that I accidently blended in. I told her those bits were just strawberry seeds.

And there are big failures, like when I was the President of a mortgage company and lead it into bankruptcy, letting a lot of people down along the way.

But no matter the specifics or scope, all failures are the result of three root causes: lack of strategy, lack of effort, and lack of courage.


Now, I’m not saying that all failure is bad or something to be avoided. In fact, failure is how we learn. We all crashed a few times when we learned to ride a bike.

But sometimes the cost of failure is too high. My friends who get divorced often come out the other side more self-aware and better people. But their wives and kids pay a steep price for that personal growth.

I want you to understand the root causes of failure so that you don’t have to ruin your marriage to learn how to become a better man, and you don’t have to ruin your company to learn how to become a better leader.

Don’t make the people you love pay the price for your failures.


The Three Root Causes of Failure:

1. Lack of strategy

Lack of strategy means that you don’t have a plan, you’re winging it.

Most of the problems that prevent people from accomplishing their goals are totally predictable. Once the failure occurs, the reasons you failed are often so obvious that you slap your forehead and think “How could I not have thought of that!?”

If you follow an intentional planning process, you are likely to avoid many of those forehead slappers.

Clients often ask me if they have to build a plan for every goal. My answer is that if your goal is important to you, it deserves a plan. If it doesn’t matter to you, go ahead and wing it.

Planning is especially important if you have a brand new goal that you’ve never attempted before. So, whether you are starting your first business, managing other people for the first time, or swimming Alcatraz for the first time, you need a plan.

Now don’t get intimidated by the idea of putting a plan together. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

Start with a SMART goal, add a list of actions you need to take, and dates on which they are due. Voila! You have a plan. If you want to improve your odds of success, add a “needs” list and a premortem and you’ve created a better plan than most small-business owners.

Something else to keep in mind is that plans change. Your initial strategic plan is really just a set of educated guesses. Once you start implementing your plan, make sure you measure the results so that you can iterate based on actual data. My friend Tom Nelson’s personal motto says it best “Over-prepare, then go with the flow.”

2. Lack of effort

Lack of effort means that you just aren’t trying hard enough. Notice I didn’t say that you aren’t trying. I said trying hard enough. Lot’s of people fail to reach their goal because it takes more work than they’re willing to put in.

Often, people quit on their goal because either it’s not really that important to them (and they shouldn’t have committed to it in the first place), or it is that important to them but they’ve forgotten why. Whenever I get discouraged in my business, all I need to do is go back and remember why I started Forging Leaders in the first place, and I’m willing to push through any obstacle.

If your goals are important, achieving them isn’t going to be easy. You’re going to have to push yourself harder than you’ve ever pushed before. You may have to push yourself past what you even believe is possible. My high school wrestling coach use to tell us “Your brain will quit 100 times before your body gives out.”

You can do more than you think. Do you want it bad enough?

3. Lack of courage

Lack of courage means that you’re failing because you’re scared.

Fear is the most powerful motivator in our lives, and that’s not entirely bad. Fear helps us by keeping us safe from danger. In fact, we are only living today because our ancestor’s fear of heights, deep water, the dark, closed spaces, large animals, and strangers kept them alive long enough to raise children.

But the problem is that our brains don’t differentiate between dangers that can injure or kill us, and dangers that will just embarrass us. We have the same physiological panic response to public speaking as we do to being attacked by a bear…adrenaline dumps, heart rate jumps, sweat pumps.

So fear helps you, but it also holds you back. See, your biggest goals don’t live inside your comfort zone. You are going to have to do scary things in order to have the amazing life that you want.

Some of the fears that are most to blame for failure are: the fear of disappointing someone, the fear angering someone, or the fear of failing and looking stupid. These fears keep you locked in the cage of living a life according to other people’s rules.

If you don’t have the courage to break out of that cage, you will deeply regret it. In fact, in her book The Top 5 Regrets of The Dying, Bronnie Ware says that the number one regret of people on their deathbeds is “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Mythologist, Joseph Campbell, says it best “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”


So there you have it. Every failure in your life has probably been caused by some combination of not having a plan, not working hard enough, and letting fear hold you back. In next week’s article, I will offer some of my favorite tips and strategies for overcoming these causes of failure and accomplishing your biggest goals.