"I called over there for a reference, left word with some snooty girl, next thing you know I got a fax from Miranda Priestly saying that of all the assistants she ever hired, you were by far her biggest disappointment... And if I don't hire you, I'm an idiot. You must have done something right." — The Devil Wears Prada
If I was going to fire you, you'd be gone already.
Sometimes, an intelligent boss will determine that the best candidate for an important job is the one who has just caused a disaster.
We have the Boss. He is in the position of authority and decides who comes and who goes. He may be a feudal lord, a military officer, a businessman, a politician, whatever, but he will usually turn out to be more insightful a leader than most (and definitely not incompetent). He's got to make a decision about who to keep or promote, and is watching his subordinates carefully. Variants could include judges analyzing contestants to a competition or teachers selecting their students.
A subordinate screws up badly: someone dies, lots of money/time/resources are lost, a battle is a rout. He thinks he's screwed, but the Boss decides to keep or even promote them on the basis of this failure on reasoning that the subordinate will forever more be motivated by that mistake. Thus they are giving the subordinate an opportunity for My Greatest Second Chance.
In short, this trope refers to any situation where someone with authority to chooses a candidate who has failed terribly because they feel the memory of that failure will push them to excel in the future, rather than be predictive of their performance overall. Superiors who follow this trope may have a similar failure in their own past.
The employee might become a Failure Knight, dovetailing with this trope: someone with empathic, almost embarrassing levels of devotion stemming from their past failure.
See also Secret Test of Character, Training Accident, You Did Everything You Could. Contrast with You Have Failed Me, when a subordinate gets harshly (often terminally) punished for possibly trivial mistakes.
In Legend of the Galactic Heroes, this is one of Reinhard von Lohengramm's most admirable traits: when a subordinate fails him, he just tells him that he knows the subordinate learned his lesson and will do better next time. He is universally right in his judgement. note He wasn't always like that. The first time Reinhard wanted to punish an officer who caused him to lose a battle, his best friend and living conscience, Kircheis, pleaded to him not to do it. Reinhard listened to his advice and learned the lesson.
In Starship Troopers, Rico is leading the squad when one of his team is shot during a live-fire training exercise. Rico expects to be drummed out, but shows such responsibility that Zim, his sergeant, recommends administrative punishment instead, allowing Rico to stay. Rico, however, declines the invitation, due to his sense of shame, and opts to leave the infantry in disgrace. However, after the Bugs destroy Buenos Aires, his home city, he requests to be reinstated and finishes his training.
In Lee Lightner's Warhammer 40,000Space Wolf novel Sons of Fenris, when Tor has unwisely led his forces into an ambush, Ragnar chooses him to lead to the attack on a warp portal, because Tor
Needs an opportunity to redeem himself, Ranulf. Redemption requires two things, desire and opportunity. I know this better than most.
Grand Admiral Thrawn promotes a subordinate who failed to capture Luke's ship with a Tractor Beam. The subordinate received high praise because he went above and beyond his duty in his efforts, creating new strategies on the fly that, even though they failed, still bespoke top-notch problem-solving skills. (Bonus points for actually taking responsibility for his failure.) The tractor beam operator was then told to work out a way to counter Luke's trick. He did.
Contrast with a similar situation in a previous book; the tractor beam operator in that case exhibited both incompetence and insubordination—he had failed to capture the right target, and then tried to pass the buck on to his superior. Once Thrawn got a grasp of the situation, that tractor beam operator was executed.
This trope is also how Wedge Antilles manages the formation of Wraith Squadron; previously-trained pilots who screwed up in various ways, many of them not really their fault, get one last chance. Wedge is scrupulous about the pilots he accepts, though; of the ~40 pilots that try out, only ten make it in.
This happened, in a rather unusual way, to Bevel Lemelisk, one of the designers of the original Death Star. He had been responsible for the exhaust port flaw on the original Death Star. The Emperor had him executed for that blunder...and then used a Sith technique to transfer his consciousness to a clone body. Lemelisk was then placed in charge of redesigning the Death Star. And every time he made another mistake, the Emperor would execute him in some new gruesome manner, then transfer his consciousness to a clone body again.
Piankhy, the title character of The Black Pharaoh by Christian Jacq, does this to a village leader who betrayed him, not before scaring him a bit by shaking a knife.
Artemis Fowl: Julius Root is hard on Holly for several reasons. One of them being that she failed once and failed bad, and she must thus be the best to have that one failure be minimal compared to the rest of her actions.
In Season 4, Thirteen fatally confounded a diagnosis by accident. Dr. House reasoned that Thirteen would be incredibly attentive to detail after that case. On another occasion, he helps an astronaut further her career in spite of medical considerations that could have made NASA wary. House simply concluded that his patient would be the safest astronaut NASA could possibly hire, given how informed she was about her condition and how desperate she was to do her job well.
In season two's "The Mistake": After Chase kills a patient by neglecting to ask some routine questions and gets sued by her brother, House decides not to fire him. It's not because he figured that Chase would learn from his mistake, but because he'd figured that since the news of the death of Chase's father had led to his screw-up, it wouldn't happen again because now both his parents were dead.
Happy Days: Chachi accidentally burns down Arnold's. Al (the owner) is upset about the fire but doesn't blame Chachi because it was an accident. Fonzie chews Chachi out about it; then appoints Chachi as his representative at the newArnold's (in which Fonzie's partner with Al), because Fonz knows Chachi will make sure not to screw up again.
The Sandbaggers: The Director of Operations uses something like this to select his titular spies; his secretary observes that all his agents are superhumanly dedicated to make up for a self-perceived defect or inadequacy.
The pilot episode of has Josh get this treatment from Pres. Bartlet.
Leo does it to Paris after she leaks his former drug habit.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Grissom is told to fire Warrick because Warrick left a scene and, as a result, rookie CSI Holly Gribbs is killed. Grissom tells Warrick that he's already lost one CSI, and that he doesn't want to lose another. note If he fired Warrick for making a mistake, he'd also have to fire himself and the rest of the team, because they've all made mistakes at one time or another. Warrick then becomes one of the most reliable members of The Team.
Hells Kitchen: Gordon Ramsey has the best member of the losing team reason why his teammates should either leave or stay. He then calls both of these men out and has them defend themselves, and then finally picks for who would have been the elimination the actual worst player, someone on the other team, who was feeling smug and relieved.
Life On Mars: Sam's modern policing style allows a criminal to go free who subsequently puts a woman working in CID in a coma. After a hilarious fight with Gene in the woman's hospital room, Sam assumes Gene will want to kick him off the team. Gene fires back with: "Are you joking? You've got to put this right. She's not giving up and nor should you."
Ashes to Ashes pulls this one when Chris turns out to have been corrupt. Gene decides that the shame of still working in CID with everyone knowing what he did will be his punishment.
In season two of The Wire, Lt. Daniels hires Sgt. Carver as part of his team again despite Carver snitching about their progress to the higher-ups which led to severe meddling in the investigation the previous season, explaining that he knows Carver won't do it again after seeing how wrong it went the first time, and with extra attention on him.
Doctor Who: Harriet Jones (MP, Flydale North) stumbles into Downing Street to promote her new health regulation ideas... during the middle of an alien invasion. Being too stubborn to back off, despite everyone repeatedly telling her to, she accidentally spots the aliens while trying to plant her files in the emergency program suitcase. This leads to her meeting the Doctor and becoming the lone reliable witness of the alien battle. The Doctor encourages her to become the invasion's media darling, knowing that it would lead to her eventually becoming Prime Minister of the UK as a result.
The Practice: Early in his career, Bobby put on a half-hearted defense of a man he'd been appointed to represent as a public defender, believing him to be guilty; the man was convicted of murder. The man was exonerated several years later, and hired Bobby to handle his wrongful-imprisonment suit, figuring he'd be motivated to atone for his own role in the conviction.
On Law & Order, when Ben Stone was a young Assistant District Attorney, he accidentally sent privileged information over to the defense in a case he was working on that cost them the trial. The DA at the time didn't fire him, figuring Stone would be not only more prudent but also forgiving of others when they made similar blunders.
Deep Space Nine: One episode revealed that Odo made a mistake not investigating a terrorist attack thoroughly enough during the Cardassian occupation which led to innocent Bajorans being executed. Odo is in anguish when forced to relive the events begging his past self to look into things he overlooked the first time. Given Odo's reputation for competence and thoroughness in his investigations during the series he took this lesson to heart.
Triple H was the only one of a group of four people to be punished for what was known as "The MSG Incident." Triple H and Shawn Michaels hugged Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, who were on their way to WCW. Someone caught this on camera, and it quickly made the rounds. Since Hall and Nash were gone, and Michaels was the WWE Champion at the time, Triple H had to take the whole of the punishment. One would think this incident would keep him at the bottom of the card for the rest of his life, and utterly ruin him, despite Triple H's love for the business. Fast forward to today: Triple H is married to Vince McMahon's daughter, won thirteen WWE world titles in his career, and is being groomed to take over the business side of the WWE.
Transformers Generation 1: Aerialbot Silverbolt is scared of heights and screws up during a mission. Optimus Prime promotes him to Aerialbot leader, knowing that the responsibility will take his mind away from his fears.
Napoleon Hill wrote in Think and Grow Rich about this trope happening in real life. An executive had just started working at Andrew Carnegie's company, US Steel. The new guy ruined a million-dollar project and humbly asked the boss if he would be fired. Andrew Carnegie said "Fire you? We just spent a million dollars training you! " Supposedly the new guy was highly motivated to make it up to the company.
Admiral Nimitz did this a number of times during World War II and got some quite talented commanders out of it. Admiral Nimitz himself had this trope occur when he accidentally ran a destroyer he was conning aground. Normally, this would be a career-ending event in the Navy, but then-Ensign Nimitz was spared.
When Listeria bacteria were found in the products of an Israeli pizza chain, one professor stated that that pizza chain would from then on be the safest one in the country, as they could be trusted never to let it happen again after the publicity and economic hit they took as a result.
In the '80s restaurant chain Jack in the Box had cases of e. coli stemming from undercooked meat, causing some deaths. The resulting publicity threatened to close down the chain, but the company put out a lot of effort to ensure their burgers would never be undercooked again, and the publicity from those efforts helped make Jack even bigger than before.
Christopher Titus says this was his father's primary parenting method: let him do dangerous things like stick a penny in a wall socket, then after he was hurt, saying "You're not gonna do that again, are you?" In this case it was more 'let you screw up under supervision where I can make sure it won't kill you, so you'll know better than to do it when I'm not there to protect you' than 'not firing you as my son for being a moron because you'll learn.' Back when houses frequently had fire in them, letting a kid stick its hand in the fire under supervision (or even burning them yourself) was often recommended so that they would learn from a very early age that fire hurts, and wouldn't go blundering into it and dying while your back was turned.
In a possible company example, after the Exxon-Valdez debacle Exxon reinvented itself by developing an obsession with safety.