Failure, the Other “F” Word

Failure. I don’t like it.  And, I defy anyone to put up a hand and volunteer if asked, “Okay, so who wants to fail today?”

The fact is though, unless we live in a bubble and do nothing, we are going to fail at something.  Failure is a part of living and, often, the very thing that makes success so exhilarating, if only by contrast.

Leaders experience failure all the time. Indeed, it is often failure that gives them the fuel and determination to succeed in the end. So, if you are new to leadership, know that to be a good leader, sometimes you’re also going to fail.

Some people will say that however you look at it, failure is failure.  But I can think of two kinds of failure, the glorious kind and the pointless kind.

Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, talks about glorious failure. As a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh PA, he regularly put out challenges to his students and then gave an award to the team of students that failed to meet their stated objectives.  He gave the award in acknowledgement of their dedication to new ideas; to their willingness to take risk and; to the effort they made toward achieving something that no one else had dared to try.

To me, glorious failures are also those that come from genuine effort.  These are failures that are used as springboards to something else.  They represent a piece of a larger puzzle and are used for learning, growth and exploration.

But, failures become pointless when we don’t pay attention to the lessons they teach.  I expect we do this for a number of reasons.  It can be embarrassing to try something and fall flat on our faces.  So the temptation to pretend it didn’t happen or to find someone to blame is often very strong.

Indeed, in some organizations, there is little tolerance for failure, at least in my experience.  Time is spent, and wasted, in rationalizing and blaming. The lessons that come from failure then become lost and useless.  And, people are less and less willing to explore new possibilities.

When it comes to trying new things I believe that good leaders do two things.

First, they focus on success.  That means they will do whatever they can to anticipate potential pitfalls that could get in the way of achieving their goal and work on mitigating these obstacles so that the way to the goal becomes less onerous.

Second, should they fail to meet their intended objective, they focus on learning. That means they will examine the outcome and circumstances dispassionately with a view to squeezing as much juice out of the situation as possible.  To me, it goes something like this:

  • Determine what worked and keep it for use at another time
  • Acknowledge what didn’t work and determine what might be done differently next time.
  • Take corrective action as required
  • Remember the lesson and move on

And, if looking for someone to blame, good leaders look in the mirror first.

Oh, and just in case you want more evidence that failure can indeed lead to success, here are some famous failures for you to contemplate

Your thoughts?



Filed under communication, Leading Teams, Learning, motivating & Inspiring

11 responses to “Failure, the Other “F” Word

  1. Love everything about this post, but my favorite part has to be:

    “Remember the lesson and move on.”

    Thanks for posting this!

  2. Gwyn Teatro

    Maria, Thank you for your kind words and for coming by! 🙂

  3. Thanks for the reminder to use disappointments as a springboard for learning.

  4. Great post, Gwyn. When things don’t come out the way you wanted or expected, learning from the experience is where you get value.

    It’s sad, too, that so many “failures” don’t need to be success/failure experiences. If we can shift to an experiment/learn model for many of the things we try, we can eliminate the idea of a “failure” for many activities.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Wouldn’t that be great? Shifting to experiment/learn perspective would most certainly take the ‘hammer’ out of the equation.

      Thanks, Wally, for your usual value-added comment 🙂

  5. I’ve given some consideration to my team’s current work: what if we fail? Our strategy might not be approved; that is one kind of failure. Or our strategy might be implemented yet fail in execution; that is another. Some may interpret the phrase everyone knows from Apollo 13 – “failure is not an option”- as a justification for being risk adverse. Yet in our Foundations, we have a creedo less well known that states it better, paraphrased roughly as this: It is not about whether we try and fail, it is whether in the effort we gave it our best.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Couldn’t agree more. It is often the degree of effort that makes the real distinction between a glorious failure and a pointless one.

      Thanks Joe, for adding a real-world perspective to the topic 🙂

  6. hey, Gwyn, great post here!

    I think failure is what keeps the ‘average’ person from being extraordinary…

    Though they experience it on small levels all the time, they don’t have the stomach for ‘optional failure’… which comes from choosing to go after goals and ideas that will undoubtedly incur risk.

    If they can avoid failure, they do.

    And they limit themselves.

    Failure is a REQUIRED ingredient for success. Limit yourself to small, unavoidable failures, and you unwittingly limit yourself to small successes.


    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hey Jef! Nice to meet you & thanks for your comment.

      Yes, I agree. The size of the failure, and conversely the success, is usually in direct proportion to the amount of “stomach” one has mustered to try something new in the first place. Good thought.

  7. Pingback: Guiding Rookies ~ Three Steps To Doing It Well | You’re Not the Boss of Me

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