Creative Leadership

The Top 10 Secrets for Successfully Failing Up

Nearly everyone knows someone who’s “failed up.” In other words, no matter how many times they’ve failed, been fired, hurt co-workers, or created a catastrophe, they still seem to move up the career ladder. It’s frustrating to watch, and if you’ve ever wondered how they do it, here are the real secrets of “failing up:”

1) Always manage up.   Forget your team members and co-workers. You should only focus on making sure you look good to the boss. No matter how bad you are, you can always twist bad outcomes in your favor.

2) Become an expert at denial.   Make sure it’s always someone else’s fault. Learn the art of “blame shifting” and always have a reason why someone else made the mistake.

3) Never take responsibility.   Taking personal responsibility is a recipe for disaster when it comes to failing up.

4) Make sure your resume is a work of fiction, not non-fiction.   Hey – it happened in the past, and nobody will find out. Just write up the resume that represents the past you wish you had, not the past you actually have. At the very least, be very selective about what you put on the resume.

5) Pre-plan reasons your critics are wrong.   There are plenty of co-workers from the past who can dispute your claim about how awesome you were at your last few jobs. So be ready in advance with reasons they can’t be trusted, have a personal vendetta against you, or are outright crazy.

6) Always work on your PR.   Make sure enough good stories are circulating out there to overwhelm the stories about your failures. It can be from totally different sources (coaching the local kid’s softball team, the great party you threw for your last boss, your high school athletic prowess, etc…). The key is to find something that’s positive about your past and keep it in front of people.

7) If you’re married, make sure your spouse knows how critical this is.   You don’t want him or her undercutting your stories, so make sure your husband or wife knows the right stories to tell. This is very important because they can confirm to your future boss how you were screwed over at your last job.

8) Always try to work on teams.   That way, others can do the real work, and you can take the credit. Working solo means you have to actually perform, and that’s the last thing you want to do. Get on a team, and it’s Easy Street from there on….

9) Learn to dominate conversations.   When you take command of the conversation, you can guide it away from your past failures, and steer it toward how awesome you are. Timid people get stepped on, and you probably have a lot of people your poor performance hurt in the past. So don’t let them control your future. Stay loud and proud so you can always focus everyone’s attention on the “real” story.

10) Finally, you have to really believe that you’re talented and successful.   Remember O.J. Simpson? I think he’s so convinced of his innocence, he’d pass a lie detector test. Richard Nixon thought the Watergate break-in was the right thing to do. You need that kind of resolve if you’re going to fail up.

Failing up is a full time job, so take it seriously. Learn these lessons, because reality is a tough thing to overcome, and with your disastrous past, you can’t afford to let up – even for a second.

NOTE:  Perhaps this post is best read by leaders as a caution when hiring.  These men and women are essentially able to keep moving up the ladder because those doing the hiring believe them without getting verification or confirmation from others.  Take hiring seriously.  Do your homework on people and you won’t be saddled with someone failing up.

Anyone have any additional suggestions for “failing up” successfully?

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  1. This is so good! … and so true. I would add: Become good friends with your boss, they’ll protect you and take your side every time when an issue comes up; others will be blamed, not you. Another- become a “yes” man to the boss, you can’t lose on this one!

  2. Another key: Set the bar as low as you can; never stretch yourself or your organization; even when a simple request is given to you or your department, make it sound like moving Mt. Everest before heroically agreeing to take one for the team and help out

  3. To become a Master of Office Politics:Boss’s boss, key influencers, aka: Social Capital, for personal gain. Great post, very informative.

  4. Walk around saying, “knowledge is power” and never share anything of pertinence with any other employees – you will go fat.

    1. Great one Truett. On my first job in the business, my boss was that guy. He lead by withholding information and being very careful who knew what. It’s a recipe for disaster of course, but as you suggest, it’s a good way to fail up… 🙂

  5. The “best” I’ve seen at this have no moral compass. This allows the person to side with whoever is winning and change position if necessary. It also allows for dishonest, disingenuous behavior as necessary to get one’s self ahead.

    1. Sounds like a lot of politicians – especially one particular presidential candidate who’s running right now… 🙂
      Great insight Bruce – thanks!

  6. This can work for you on both sides of the equation: look like a million bucks. Dress expensively and well, know your manners, exude charm, exhibit a command of language, network like crazy. Many people can be fooled for a while if you are an empty, conscienceless suit, and once they know you, they will marvel at how you pull it off. If you are a person of excellence, this kind of professional presence can only enhance your career.

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