Posts Tagged ‘failure’
One dismaying fact — and I would argue a growing trend with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator — is the series of misconceptions that regularly arise in its interpretation. This is mainly due to increasingly compressed timeframes in which the theory is taught.
I would like to do my part to lay to rest one of the myths, and I want to do that with a story, in order to help others understand what the MBTI really is.
You have probably heard someone complain that the MBTI “puts people in boxes.” The hypothesis of a preference is somehow seen as tagging someone with a label from which he or she cannot escape.
I know I’d be unhappy if that were the case, but it’s not. Type simply describes preferences we bring to life, work, relationships and situations. In fact, we have to use all the functions every day in order to survive, but some we prefer to others.
Type describes where you start, but it says nothing about where you wind up. In fact, one of the most important concepts in Type – Type development – is all about how you develop the less-preferred parts of the personality in order to be more well-rounded, adaptive and, as Carl Jung said, “individuated.”
I have always believed it is healthy to engage in activity that is the opposite of preference – that it is a good idea for introverts to work on speaking up more, for extraverts to take a little more time before speaking, and so on.
In my own Type – ENTP – I have a very clear preference for Intuition over Sensing. Intuition is about the big picture, patterns, concepts, themes and the future. Sensing is about the details, specifics, concrete facts, the knowable and more the immediate reality.
And now to the story.
I don’t remember exactly how it happened, or if it involved some arm twisting, cold beers, volunteer guilting or — in the way so many volunteer jobs work — a profound lack of understanding of what I was getting into, but I wound up in a role as something called “Clerk of Course” for my daughter’s summer swim team. Clerk of Course may sound like an official, even bureaucratic function involving a sharpened pencil and perhaps a banker’s lamp, but it’s not.
No, Clerk of Course is physically located right in the middle of the central nervous system of a meet. It includes mayhem, stress, elevated pulse rates and a never-ending fear of jacking up and delaying the running of a meet, at which point hundreds of over-ambitious, time-starved parents can hate you, let alone the swimmers who are inconvenienced.
The job of Clerk of Course each Saturday morning during the season is to get 272 excited swimmers to the right lane, at the right time, for the right race. Some of these swimmers are 8 years old and younger, meaning they suddenly realize they need to go to the bathroom right before a race, and want you to tell them it’s OK to do so.
If you think that’s bad, try corralling the 15-18 age group, the chief goal of which seems to be strutting, preening and occasional chest-beating (the boys) and quietly talking about each other and relationships (the girls). Both genders are more interested in what is on their iPods than anything an old guy wants to tell them about getting lined up. They have far more important things on their minds that actually checking in at the Clerk of Course, which is required under Northern Virginia Swim League rules, people. Please.
But one error, and the wrath of the NVSL (and remember, the parents) can befall the Clerk of Course, hence the stress mentioned above.
Now, all of my dear and wonderful colleagues will readily tell you that attention to details is not exactly my strong suit. They would probably tell you this while rolling their eyes, and they would probably say it in a more colorful and extreme fashion than I just wrote. There’s a good reason for this. For those of you who have studied Type, it is my Inferior Function, meaning it comes last in my own batting order for dealing with the world of Intuition, Thinking, Feeling, and then, dead last, Sensing.
But here’s the real point: I knew the volunteer job would require me to develop my own Sensing and attention to details, and that’s actually why I took it. I knew it would stretch me.
And, in retrospect, I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.
Each Saturday during the swim season, I had to completely focus attention on each of those 272 names, making sure the right person got to the right lane, etc. An earthquake could have taken place, a helicopter could have made an emergency landing in the pool, the Obama motorcade could have driven by and I would have never noticed. Total focus.
After the initial panic and sense of being overwhelmed, which went on for 4 or 5 years, I actually started to get into the rhythm of the job, finding the best ways to make sure everything worked. In fact, I began to take pride in the mastery of the details, and the running of an error-free meet. After some time, it became clear to me it was like a ballet and a mosh pit, a seamless and rhythmic orchestrating of unruly, youthful crowds. It was a beautiful thing when each race ended and the next race was ready to take off. The time-challenged parents loved that.
Before all this took place, in the early morning when the pool was just starting to awaken, I would go to the staging area and clean it up, arrange the benches, make sure the ground was clear of any objects. It was a quiet, introverted devotion to details. To be honest, it was kind of a reverence, a caring about the details.
Type describes where you start, but not where you wind up. I may still struggle with some details at work, but doing this activity increased my confidence that I can flex to sensing when needed.
I did the gig for eight years, and with a daughter going to college now, it’s over. More than 10,000 swimmers later, my work there is done, and I will miss it terribly. It was a great opportunity, a lot of fun in between the moments of sheer terror, and I hope a service to all those wonderful kids.
You never know what Type development opportunities might open up for you.
It was a pleasant lunch. As usual in this business, the conversation was around leadership, organizations and culture.
The point was made for the umpteenth time in my life that the federal government often promotes people into supervisory positions who are very skilled technically, but not very good in managing people.
I invoked one of my favorite expressions from Dan Goleman, who quoted one person in such a position who said: “It finally hit me – I have to learn all-new skills.”
One of the diners said, “You know, in my life I’ve had to do that several times.”
It was a succinct, yet powerful statement. No one should overlook or underestimate its significance.
The power in this approach to work and life resides in the adaptability, resilience and change-readiness it is based on. It proves an openness, a yielding to the rhythms of life, and a proper location of subject and object. It is also a way to facilitate movement through the stages of adult development. (See Leadership Agility by Bill Joiner for an excellent treatment of this topic.)
It is a stance of behaviorally being able to let go of things that may have worked, even for decades. It means stepping into uncertainty, risk and even fear. What if it doesn’t work? What if you fail?
Yet the circumstances of our work and lives demand sometimes that we change, even when we may not want to, or like what the change represents. It is the difference between, as Viktor Frankl put it, asking what you want out of life versus asking what life wants from you.
There is no need to belabor the point on resistance to change. We see it frequently; much less often in ourselves, where it is so easy to get up each day and pretty much do what we did the day before – no matter that the context and demands of the environment have changed.
I offered that I have experienced more than a few leaders in workshops and coaching who have proclaimed as soon as we started: “I’ve been at this (insert number of) years, know what I’m doing and I’m not changing.” This is often accompanied by a folding of the arms. Resistance, even stubbornness, thinking that since you have a hammer, every problem must be a nail, rigidity – all these characterize the opposite.
Here are some examples of the kind of deep, personal change I’m talking about — which happen to be essential for leadership in most settings:
- Micromanaging versus granting autonomy
- Trusting versus not trusting (very hard if you’ve been burned)
- Learning to look for strengths instead of weaknesses
- Asking for feedback versus making it clear you are the only one who will give feedback to subordinates
- Admitting mistakes and weaknesses (and what you learned from them) versus “the need to be right”
- Thinking of the impact of your actions on others versus just executing tasks
- Seeing others’ resistance as information versus something that is wrong and to be shut down
Erik Erikson said that during the bulk of our working years, human beings experience either generativity or stagnation. Generativity is creating, giving back, yielding, accepting and living. Stagnation is not knowing what to do when your moves no longer work, when your program is out of gas. It is the state of being stuck.
Are there any all-new skills you need to learn? Hint: Look at the your chronic, recurring, patterned problems. Start there.
The November, 2010 issue of Vanity Fair offers a fascinating and in-depth, if depressing, insight into the world of Merrill Lynch’s leadership before and during the financial crisis, when Stanley O’Neal was at the helm.
The piece, “The Man Who Blew Merrill Lynch’s Billions,” by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera truly reads like an archetypal fairy tale, or myth. Perhaps Greek drama is a better characterization. It’s all here in the story — all the elements of leadership that run an organization into the ground. (See the summary at the end of this blog.)
O’Neal joined Merrill in 1986 as a junk bond trader. He quickly worked his way up, impressing his superiors in each position as a top performer – and one who could be ruthless in chasing the performance imperative. The authors write that he was
“proud, prickly, intolerant of dissent and quick to take offense at perceived slights.”
Within 16 years, he was CEO.
Once he got the top job, he immediately pushed aside those he had competed with to get there. But he went further. The article authors write, “O’Neal had been insular before; he was the kind of man who liked to play golf by himself. Now he became isolated. He had been wary; now he became suspicious of everyone around him. Patrick and Zakaria (two officials) had been extremely competent executives; he replaced them with more pliable lieutenants.”
Other executive mirrored this; they were vindictive, surrounding themselves with a small group of those who would only say “yes” — a process that ultimately had catastrophic results. He once said, “You don’t understand. Dysfunction is good on Wall Street.”
During this time, O’Neal developed a fixation with Goldman Sachs, the money printing press that quarter after quarter was churning out enormous profits. O’Neal’s jealousy was such that one executive commented that you did not want to be in O’Neal’s office the day Goldman released its financial results.
Beyond the differences in financial performance, there were others. The authors write, “O’Neal insisted that the company’s executives speak only to him about their businesses and not with one another. The Goldman brass insisted on knowing bad news; Merrill executives trembled at the thought of giving O’Neal bad news. O’Neal rarely asked for input when making a decision. And under no circumstances did he want to be challenged once he had made up his mind.”
Some basic economics: One hugely important strategic decision O’Neal made was to not only sell, but also own, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). CDOs are one example of those derivatives that precipitated the U.S. financial crisis. They are essentially your mortgage, mine, others’ car loans and other forms of debt all bundled together and resold to investors who like the stream of income as debt is repaid.
The only problem is that when individuals cannot make the debt payments, the system comes unhinged. Since the credit rating agencies gave top marks to any CDOs with a pulse – even when they were shaky – they were freely bought and sold with Triple A confidence, until the music stopped. In reality, many of the debts in these CDOs were perilous, and O’Neal kept pushing for Merrill to embrace higher coupons – Wall Street parlance for increasingly risky debt instruments. Merrill had grown up as a nice, stable stockbroker, selling shares to middle America, but as it embraced CDOs to increase profits, it was in a new game, with all new risks.
This rush to CDOs was propelled by O’Neal’s envy of Goldman profits, and woe to the man or woman who warned of the risks as Merrill’s profits, too, rose. In fact, O’Neal’s force of temper meant that no one would tell the truth, even as the first explosions in the debt market began happening. Executives downplayed the risk Merrill faced (remember, it now owned, not just sold, the debt), saying the earliest market tremors would blow over, and the little “rough patch” would end. One internal estimate from the O’Neal clones of Merrill’s exposure at $83 million came to be known within the firm as “The Fantastic Lie.”
But as you know, the facts have an inconvenient way of not going away. As it became increasingly clear that the financial system was encountering systemic disruption, firms’ positions were flushed out. The $83 million lie ballooned to $6 billion. Just like that.
At this point, it is an entirely fair question to ask why, when you keep track of a few dollars error in your checking account, a company can mistake nearly $6 billion.
You actually already know the answer. The authors write. “Always a loner, he had become isolated from his own firm. He had no idea that key risk managers had been pushed aside or that people he had put in important positions were out of their depth. Amazing as it sounds, the CEO of Merrill Lynch really didn’t have a clue.” They also write that as Goldman executives were cancelling vacations, O’Neal played golf by himself.
The rest is history. The reality became undeniable, and O’Neal – almost overnight – went from the arrogant, resentful, irritated defender of Merrill to a shell-shocked shadow of his former self. There was no way out. Except out, with $161 million in retirement benefits as Bank of America bought Merrill.
When he was later hauled up before Congress, mostly to defend his retirement package, the authors write that he spent his time “dwelling on the mistakes of the men he had surrounded himself with, mostly blaming others for his downfall.”
So what’s the message? Here is the O’Neal Leadership Playbook, for your consideration:
Don’t let people communicate freely with each other
Keep an enemies list, and get rid of them
Make sure people know you can’t stand to hear contrary information
Operate out of competitive jealousy
Tear up the strategy
Be emotionally volatile
Blame everyone else
If you are, or have tried to be a golfer (the joke is that the first 20 years are the hardest), then you already know a lot about performance.
The maddening aspect of golf, in all its unforgiveness, is the ball flight. It is perfect performance feedback, and because of the razor-sharp margins of error in the game, the ball often goes into the weeds instead of the hole.
So you would think given how many people get frustrated with their results, that whatever is needed to get from Hank the Hacker to Phil Mickelson would be steadily, methodically pursued.
In fact, the research shows that golfers’ “handicap” – a measure of how good they are – has not changed substantially in many decades. Weekend golfers are standing still.
Before explaining why, let’s go to the driving range. That’s the place where wanna-be golfers can hit ball after ball. The big problem is that the way they’re hitting the ball is wrong. Swing after swing, they’re doing it wrong. One golfer once told another that his swing looked like a man changing out of a raincoat in a phone booth, while fighting off a snake.
It’s not usually that bad or obvious, but if you step back from the driving range and just watch the swings, it becomes immediately obvious that many golfers are either fighting snakes, warding off demons or otherwise executing very compromised swings. Some are humorous in their contortions (and I should talk). Swing after swing, the faults are repeated and then grooved. Bad practice becomes habit. But it’s known, repeatable and familiar.
For those of you who have tried to change a habit, you know how hard it is. For those of you who have tried to change a physical sequence – usually in a sport – you know how hard it is. You have to come out of a groove you’ve established. It literally requires rewiring of your brain, though doing something new, intentional and at least initially, awkward. You go backwards at first, and your performance suffers. You want to go back to old reliable, even if it got you in the weeds.
So let’s leave the driving range and talk leadership.
The fact is, the skills and competencies in leadership – things like listening, transparency, focus, communication skills – can be taught. The question is whether leaders want to go through the difficult, awkward process of learning them.
Unlike choosing to keep your elbow in on the backswing, or pronating the wrists through impact, the skills in leadership for most people involve even deeper internal change. They require upending fundamental assumptions about the self, others and the organization. For example, someone who has achieved some success largely through telling others what to do may find it hard to increase listening. Someone who is secretive may be threatened by the concept of disclosure or transparency. Someone who secretly wishes that everyone else were more like him or her may find it really hard to actually value differences.
Getting the concept is easy – you can read it in the in-flight magazine — but relating it to the self (current swing) is where it starts to get hard as fundamental beliefs, habits, worldviews and even values are called into question. But the hardest of all, if you buy the case for any particular change in you, is sustaining the day-to-day efforts to keep doing what you believe ultimately will work better. The familiar and comfortable are so tempting, particularly under stress, which our workplaces are dishing up with great intensity and frequency these days.
But each time to you execute the new swing, or engage in the changed behavior, you build a form of muscle memory as you begin the rewire your brain. At some point, the new program eclipses the old ways, and you groove a new, better swing or habit.
What groove are you in?
This time of year tends to be full of milestone events. Weddings, big vacations, and graduations are at the top of the to-do list. In the case of graduations, valedictorians, thought leaders and celebrities of all kinds tend to include a common thread about the importance of success in their commencement speeches. Those messages tend to go something like this:
Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.
Don’t live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable. (Wendy Wasserstein)
Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
No pressure, right?
It has been some time since I was in college and longer than I’d care to count since I was in high school. And yet, one thing remains true today as if it was just yesterday: nobody I know gets up in the morning with the intention to fail. I’m no exception; I appreciate and strive for success as much as anyone else, and I like to be surrounded by people who do the same. Failure does happen though, and it often serves as an important milepost on the journey to success. For leaders, in fact, the learning that comes through and as a result of failure can be as important – if not more so – than the achievement of a successful outcome.
Leaders who are able to withstand and overcome setbacks give themselves and their teams the permission to fail in pursuit of learning and excellence. This is an adaptive capability that is not always easy for leaders to develop. It requires some resilience and humility along with a willingness to let go of what you think you know sometimes, for the sake of learning.
Here are three tips that I’ve used myself and that I’ve offered to executive coaching clients who seek to build this particular leadership muscle.
- What’s your definition? Look at your current definitions of success and failure and assess where you may need to let go of some long-held assumptions. Where did your definitions come from? Are they still serving you? If not, rewrite them.
- Experiment! Choose a small project that presents an opportunity for you to experiment with the possibility of failure. Include learning milestones for yourself in addition to project milestones – things you can observe and learn about yourself and your leadership style, in addition to the tangible project outcome. What you learn about yourself during times of “failure” may turn out to be mini-successes all in their own right, whether you achieve the overall outcome as originally planned or not.
- Involve others. Talk with your team about the effort you are making to build your adaptive capabilities by experimenting with failure. Engage them in the process by inviting their feedback on how you react, respond, and recover when things go differently than you’d planned. Be sure to tell your supervisor and other key stakeholders too so their expectations are set accordingly. After all, leaders are expected to manage and mitigate risks. Your first experiment should be big enough to provide learning but not so big that you put your organization at risk for the sake of your personal development.
In her commencement speech at Harvard two years ago, author J.K. Rowling talked about the “fringe benefits” of failure. Her short, 20-minute talk is one of my favorites because she is transparent about how she benefited from giving herself permission to fail for the sake of her own learning. You may not become a best-selling author as she has, but what would become possible if you gave yourself permission to fail…the room to learn?
Run an experiment or two and share your learning with me. No cap and gown required for this one!