Failure…The Other “F” Word

This post, from 2009, is about the possibilities that failure can provide if viewed as something other than a personal defeat or an instrument of blame.  After all, in the wise words of Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, failure not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

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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.

The late Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, talked 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  as dispassionately as possible 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 consider this:

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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18 Comments

Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Learning, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness

18 responses to “Failure…The Other “F” Word

  1. Thanks for this reminder Gwyn. I wonder how we would perceive failure if school had a different approach to grading performance and rating preparedness to go to the next level. After all, school is the first real institution where we come across failing and are judged, with the consequences feeling fatal in that you stay a year behind while you watch friends move on.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Thabo ~ Yes, I wonder too. In the “olden” days, children who did not pass certain benchmarks over the course of a year were held back the following year. And, there was always a stigma attached to it. Now, to avoid that stigma and the hurt feelings that go along with it, it seems that children who do not pass designated benchmarks are pushed along to the next level anyway. Neither serves the children or society in general. Perhaps if we all took a different perspective on failure more people would be able to reach success. Thank you for calling attention to something that is concerning for many of us.

  2. Without failure we would not learn tacit knowledge. Without tacit knowledge we’ll never really experience what it feels like to be triumphant.

  3. Hi Gwyn,

    My philosophy is:

    “Fail early. Fail often”

    If you are not failing, you are not taking risks. You are not experimenting. Perhaps it is because I work in marketing and product management, but in the words of Seth Godin “What’s holding you back from shipping”? Usually it is fear of failure. Yet there is no product in the world that works for 100% of the people, so in some sense every product is a “failure”.

    As a high performing individual, it is easy for me to focus on the next challenge. In the last five years I have worked hard to start by celebrating the wins. Whether that’s my weekly team meeting or just my day, I start with the wins, then move on to the challenges and the “failures”.

    My belief is that all true personal learning and growth stem from failure. I’ve learned much more from those things that didn’t work out than from those that did. The failures are hard lessons and you remember them for a long time.

    At least, that’s what I think :-).

    Great post as always and thanks for giving us a chance to explore the topic.

    Cheers,

    David

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi David ~ You have a great perspective on failure. For you, it seems more like something that didn’t work out that something that you did wrong. And I think there is an important distinction there. Thank you for that and for taking the time to share it.

  4. I recently made a post about failures and successes. We air the same perspective. When I wrote that blog post of mine, I was somehow also writing for myself. I wanted to remind myself of these essential things in life–to consider failures as opportunities for growth and to never lose hope. Peace and blessings!

  5. Gwyn,

    I loved your post and the YouTube that accompanied it. Can’t recall exactly how I found you recently (LinkedIn, perhaps?), but your writing and messages are amazingly in line with some of mine!

    You are not going to believe the synergy (and I do hope you find it interesting!), but when your post arrived to my email “Failure . . .The Other “F” Word”, I thought it was a response to one of my earlier blogs by the EXACT SAME TITLE! I am in the process of writing a FREE ebook as a tease for my series. Hope to have it complete within the week. It’s entitled “Failure”.

    Continue to do what you’re doing. I’ll keep reading!

    With happiness always,

    Maura Sweeney  Author – The Art of Happiness A short story series inspiring personal happiness….4u! Purchase my ebooks – http://www.amazon.com/Maura-Sweeney/e/B00A07TYK0 Learn about my professional offerings – http://maurasweeney.linktoexpert.com/ Join me at my website – http://www.Maura4u.com

    727-667-1395 cell 

    ________________________________

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Maura ~ Your enthusiasm jumps off the page here!! Thank you for it and for your encouragement. Best wishes for much success with your book 🙂

  6. A beautiful post, Gwyn. Thanks for bringing it back and also introducing me to that inspiring video. I recently wrote a post on how we can view getting fired as being freed and as you indicate, with your focus on learning, this is what can make the difference between feeling like a failure and recognizing that we are growing. Keep those re-postings coming!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jamie ~ Yes, getting fired is one of those times when making a distinction between having something not work out and feeling a failure becomes really important. Thank you for your kind words. It’s always lovely to see you here 🙂

  7. Pingback: Five Blogs – 8 April 2013 | 5blogs

  8. What a fantastic analysis/thought provoking article you have put together, and what a fine line we have to work with as leaders, because when do you draw the line regarding someone who has the heart and drive, but who cannot/does not have the skillset or leadership qualities to ‘make it happen?’ Despite being mentored and coached…

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Sean ~Yes, that’s a tough one. It’s hard to say, but sometimes I think we have to know when it’s time to draw a line under something and try something else. And sometimes we need someone who cares about us enough to help us “get there”.

  9. My definition of failure is different from the one in the picture of the runner above. In my mind, failure is less about when your best isn’t good enough, and more about not having done your best in the first place.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Leslie ~ Good point! I think there are some questions we need to ask ourselves when we think about our failures. One is, Did I really try my best to succeed? Followed by, If I didn’t, why is that?. In other words, there are failures that occur because we lack capability and there are failures that occur because we lack interest, desire or discipline. Thank you for that!

  10. Pingback: The Positive Power of Failure | Martina McGowan

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