In a previous post, we looked at bad attitudes that leaders must let go of to lead well. There is something else a growing leader must let go of that’s so important it has been assigned a category of its own. It is the enormously flawed idea that in making your way through life, only success is of any value.
The truth is that one of the most “successful” things you can ever learn is how to profit from a good failure. Let’s face it, reality teaches us that failure is inevitable. Since this is the case, we had better learn how to accept failure and make the most of it.
Everybody makes mistakes, including great leaders. Nobody—repeat, nobody—normally gets it right the first time. (Most of us don’t get it right the second, third, or fourth times either!) Winston Churchill said it best: “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” This was born out in Churchill’s own life and in his political career in Great Britain when he blew one assignment after another. Finally, as prime minister during World War II, he faced the greatest leadership challenge of his career as he tried to hold together a struggling nation under the constant threat of bombings, lack of provisions, and fear. Having learned from past mistakes, he rose to the challenge and saved his country.
Consider the record of several successful people who maintained great enthusiasm while failing repeatedly:
- Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times. He also hit 714 home runs.
- “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison
- Abraham Lincoln failed twice in business and was defeated in six state and national elections before winning the presidency.
- Theodor S. Geisel (Dr. Seuss) had his first children’s book rejected by twenty-three publishers in a row. The twenty-fourth accepted the manuscript, and it sold six million copies.
Why is it that with all that is written about the benefit of failure so many leaders struggle to allow their people or organizations to “fail successfully”? The following reasons have been given at one time or another.
“It has to be somebody’s fault.”
Many organizations fear failure and make attempts to cover up mistakes or failed initiatives. To compensate for their fears, leaders often create a culture of blame. Something goes wrong, and immediately the leadership looks for someone or something to blame. Nobody takes personal responsibility; it’s much easier to find someone to blame. This is everywhere—in large corporations, small businesses, charitable organizations, government agencies, even in churches. If there is a problem, a scapegoat must be found to bear the blame.
Perhaps the most widely embraced delusion in business today is that it’s possible and even desirable to create organizations in which mistakes are rare rather than a necessary cost of doing business. The problem with embracing this fantasy is that it encourages you and your associates to hide mistakes, shift the blame for them, or pretend they don’t exist for as long as you possibly can.
“Small mistakes are great learning opportunities,” says Dennis Matthies, a Bellevue, Washington–based learning consultant. “They show ‘cracks’—areas of vulnerability—where you don’t pay the price now but might later.”
Too Tall of an Order
“We expect perfection.” Although most leaders certainly grasp the possibility if not the inevitability of failure, they still don’t like the concept. In their hearts they simply cannot tolerate anything but an absolute zero-defects mentality. They really seem to believe that if their people really try they will not fail. The leaders are either embarrassed by failure, too proud to admit failure, or do not want the “mess” that some failures can cause.
Tom Peters advances a more sane approach:
The goal is to be more tolerant of slip-ups. You must be like [Les] Wexner [Limited founder] and actively encourage failure. Talk it up. Laugh about it. Go around the table at a project group meeting or morning staff meeting: Start with your own most interesting foul-up. Then have everyone follow suit. What mistakes did you make this week? What were the most interesting ones? How can we help you make more mistakes, faster?…Look to catch someone doing something wrong!