Tips on Answering “What’s Your Biggest Failure?” – Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey’s Approach

February 4th, 2009 by lewis

Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office hit a speed bump: Tom Daschle, Obama’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, withdrew his nominationafter failing to report income on his tax returns.

After reading the news, I wondered: what’s the best way for Obama to address the failure?  Or perhaps to word this in a context more relevant to our readers, how would Obama answer the popular job interview question, “What’s your biggest failure?”
Coincidentally, I read Oprah Winfrey’s 2008 commencement speech to Stanford graduates earlier today, and she gives us some inspiration on how to tackle this challenging question:

Many of you know that, as President Hennessy said, I started this school in Africa. And I founded the school, where I’m trying to give South African girls a shot at a future like yours—Stanford. And I spent five years making sure that school would be as beautiful as the students. I wanted every girl to feel her worth reflected in her surroundings. So, I checked every blueprint, I picked every pillow. I was looking at the grout in between the bricks. I knew every thread count of the sheets. I chose every girl from the villages, from nine provinces. And yet, last fall, I was faced with a crisis I had never anticipated. I was told that one of the dorm matrons was suspected of sexual abuse.

That was, as you can imagine, devastating news. First, I cried—actually, I sobbed—for about half an hour. And then I said, let’s get to it; that’s all you get, a half an hour. You need to focus on the now, what you need to do now. So, I contacted a child trauma specialist. I put together a team of investigators. I made sure the girls had counseling and support. And Gayle and I got on a plane and flew to South Africa.

And the whole time I kept asking that question: What is this here to teach me? And, as difficult as that experience has been, I got a lot of lessons. I understand now the mistakes I made, because I had been paying attention to all of the wrong things. I’d built that school from the outside in, when what really mattered was the inside out.

So, it’s a lesson that applies to all of our lives as a whole. What matters most is what’s inside. What matters most is the sense of integrity, of quality and beauty. I got that lesson. And what I know is that the girls came away with something, too. They have emerged from this more resilient and knowing that their voices have power.

When it comes to address one’s failures, Oprah’s response is as perfect as it gets.  I mentioned the springboard technique in a previous post, and Oprah uses it very well here.  The focus here is not what happened in South Africa.  Instead, the main takeaway message is that she is a strong, capable leader.  She makes mistakes like we do, and when faced with mistakes, you can fully expect her to:

  1. Be honest and acknowledge the situation.
  2. Demonstrate empathy to those who have been hurt.
  3. Take action and fix the problem, giving others confidence that this is unlikely to happen again.
Coming back to Obama, how did he do?  Did he address his failure with flying colors, just like Oprah?
ABC News discussed the tax evasion issue with Obama, and it shows us how Obama responded:


CHARLES GIBSON: Mr. President, has this been an embarrassing day for the administration?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think it has. I mean, I think that any time one of your nominees pulls out, that’s an issue. And, you know, as I’ve said publicly, you know, ultimately, I take responsibility for the situation that we’re in.

Further along in the interview, Obama says,


PRESIDENT OBAMA: We can’t afford glitches because, right now, what I should be spending time talking to you about is how we’re going to put three to four million people back to work. And so this is a self-induced injury that I’m angry about, and we’re going to make sure we get it fixed.

Like Oprah’s response, Obama acknowledges and takes responsibility for what happened.  And he commits to fixing the problem.  But contrast this response with Oprah’s, and you see that by providing specific details (and empathy) Oprah’s response increased her leadership stature whereas Obama’s response simply minimized damage to his.

And perhaps this is one of the biggest takeaways: the three-step framework will get you halfway to answering “What’s your biggest failure?” interview question.  But if you want your answer to be credible, sincere, and engaging — then vivid details are the way to go.

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3 Responses to “Tips on Answering “What’s Your Biggest Failure?” – Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey’s Approach”

  1. February 04, 2009 at 7:35 am, Glenn Gutmacher said:

    Nicely put, you tied everything together really well utilizing a current news item, the contrast with another celebrity on the same topic, and a job-seeker concern.

    Best, Glenn Gutmacher

  2. August 10, 2009 at 3:54 am, hari babu said:

    good interview tips

  3. November 24, 2009 at 7:37 am, Fly Ash bricks said:

    Fly Ash Bricks

    It's been a nice article.I will follow these steps when ever i went to interview