From Failure To Success: The Ryan Leak Story


I was recently introduced to an author who has spent his life encouraging people to embrace failure. Ryan Leak, author of Chasing Failure: How Falling Short Sets You Up for Success, pastor, motivational speaker, and consultant helps organizations and individuals reframe failure to use it as fuel for success. This is a topic I personally love because, as a professor, I work with marketers for whom two things are generally true: 1) they are afraid to fail (like most of us), and 2) yet, they often learn and grow the most (in the classroom and on the job) through mistakes.

Consequently, I am writing a series on Leak’s regarding how to rethink failure and to use it to propel individuals, marketing teams, and organizations forward. Below, I share insight on Leak’s personal experience with failure and why he became focused on helping others use it effectively.

Kimberly A. Whitler: Tell us a little about your formative years.

Ryan Leak: I grew up in a small black church near Chicago where my father was a pastor. My dad had a stroke when I was in fifth grade and was forced into retirement. I would cross the proverbial tracks to attend school in the suburbs, but continued to play basketball in my neighborhood. I had this experience where I understood all sides of life because my parents believed in providing the best education possible but living where we could make a difference.

It was at Church where I realized the impact that could be made in Church. People would show up broken, divorced, without hope…but the Church could fix all of that. I also realized that some people never go to Church and still turn out alright.

I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to have to choose between studying the Bible or studying business—I wanted to do both. So, I went off to college and got a business degree with a minor in Bible because I realized there were people who would probably never go to church that still needed to be encouraged wherever they were. I played basketball in College.

Today, I’m blessed to be doing both as I split my time between executive coaching and speaking to corporations during the week, and then teaching in churches all across America on the weekends. I’m on the teaching teams for 5 organizations and I have the opportunity to speak to 50,000+ people a month. I’ve loved what I’ve been able to learn in both the faith space and the marketplace. Ultimately, I get to add value to people’s lives in both.

Whitler: You sound like a marketer. The first thing we teach – and reinforce over and over and over – is that marketers are “others centered”. We seek to create value for the consumer and by doing this, we create value for the company. But the consumer comes first. You’ve mentioned several times since we’ve been talking about this notion to “add value”. Can you share a little more about that?

Leak: I have been trained to think: “How can I add value to my client?” … “How can I add value to my listeners?” I think I learned this from my mentor, John Maxwell, who used to talk about adding value to leaders. It’s a simple concept but it reminds you to think of others first and to be servant minded.

In many ways it is this simple … if you walk into every room and ask “How can I add value here?” you will always remain valuable.

Whitler: What has your life experience taught you about failure?

Ryan Leak: Growing up in a church was my first exposure to failure. Every week, I’d watch people show up to a building feeling not good enough, feeling defeated, having just lost a job, just gone through a divorce, or just done with whatever life had thrown at them. But despite them walking in feeling like it was the end, I’d watch them leave feeling like it was just the beginning. People turn to a faith space because it’s a safe space. (At least it should be.) Having faith in the midst of failure can be a source of hope for people who feel like they’ve made mistakes or feel like they are one. Ultimately what I’ve learned from my faith is that failure isn’t final, and it’s certainly not fatal.

Whitler: How did your unsuccessful journey to the NBA lead you to reframing your outlook on failure?

Ryan Leak: Getting an opportunity to work out with the Phoenix Suns was incredible, but also very difficult. Having a dream your whole life and then finding out I wasn’t good enough for it was a harsh reality. It was embarrassing to be running up and down court in front of other NBA players and failing in front of them. It wasn’t until I reframed that failure was I able to see how the most embarrassing moment in my life could turn into one of the greatest moments I’ve ever had. It’s a great story today, but it sucked back then. In fact, I struggled to even make the documentary because I couldn’t look past my failure. But hindsight showed me what I couldn’t see from the middle of it—the fear of failure no longer has a hold on me. Something happened in Phoenix that I don’t believe could have happened if I simply stayed where I was comfortable. Needless to say, I didn’t make the team. But I did make the documentary. That opportunity and the story of Chasing Failure have led to greater opportunities than I could have ever imagined. Chasing failure took me further than chasing success ever did.

Whitler: Do you have any examples of how to move through career failures?

Leak: My advice to anyone who feels like they’re failing their career, their business, their boss, their employees—never stop learning and always remain teachable. In a world where it’s popular to be an expert, stay in the student lane. Learn from your failures and setbacks, because if you don’t, you’re allowing history to repeat itself. If you lose 10 jobs, it should be for 10 different reasons. I know people who consistently lose jobs and their leader was the villain at each stop. The common denominator of every job they’ve lost is them. Why did they really let them go? Why did they really promote someone else? Sometimes we don’t want to face the facts of why we’re not being chosen, but we’ve got to look inward to make sure we’re doing everything in our power to be hirable and promotable. Every failure should be an opportunity to learn and grow. And if you stay teachable, you don’t have to let previous failures keep you from moving forward.

Join the Discussion: @KimWhitler



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