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Posted by on Jun 15, 2010

Failure Is An Option

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.
(Nelson Mandela)

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!

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