Olin MBA grad discusses the importance of intelligent failure

  • February 5, 2024
  • By WashU Olin Business School
  • 2 minute read

“I’m not afraid of failure; I’m afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.”

When Cambrie Nelson, MBA 2017, first heard that quote, it “stopped me in my tracks.”

It’s one of those quotes that reorients you entirely. It made me wonder whether I was living a life of purpose, what I’d call a life of worthwhile failure.

—Cambrie Nelson

The kernel of truth at its center—that we should go after audacious, important goals rather than pursuing safer, less meaningful ones—has guided Nelson throughout her career from entrepreneurship to consultancy to her current role at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as interim director in the office of the president and chief of staff, gender equality division.

She discussed that journey, and her evolving relationship with the idea of failure, at a WashU Olin Leadership Perspectives virtual event on January 11, 2024.

Nelson spoke to Kurt Dirks, director of Bauer Leadership Center and Bank of America Professor of Leadership, about how to promote an organizational culture around courageous failure: “If I went into a boardroom, and asked how many people think failure is essential, they’d probably all raise their hands. If I asked if they were willing to fail themselves, I believe we’d have a lot fewer hands raised.”

She also discussed ways in which organizations can succeed at what matters:

  • Defining goals by bringing the right people into the conversation
  • Asking all-important “what if” questions
  • Achieving “collective success,” by understanding the unique roles played by different stakeholders

Olin’s Leadership Perspectives series highlights the questions that leaders grapple with, reflecting our values-based, data-driven approach to leadership.

Leadership Perspectives: Cambrie Nelson, MBA 2017

How intelligent failure contributes to a life of purpose

About the Author

Washington University in Saint Louis

WashU Olin Business School

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