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