Open Leadership – the Failure Imperative
Few things are more powerful than a successful failure. Michel de Montaigne wisely said, “There are defeats more triumphant than victories.” Your good failures make you, your bad failures break you.
Seneca said, “Failure changes for the better, success for the worse.” He’s right if your failures humble your spirit and open your mind.
Charlene Li explains, “I’m convinced that a key part of being an open leader is your ability to deal with failure… By mastering failure you create an environment where risk-taking is encouraged and recovery from failure becomes a skill that everyone in the organization possesses.”
Developing resilience in the face of failure
- Acknowledge failure happens.
- Encourage dialog.
- Separate the person from the failure.
- Learn from mistakes.
Creating a structure that succeeds through failure
- Conduct post-mortems.
- Before risk-taking, prepare with worst-case scenarios.
- Build in open response and acknowledgement of failures. Create a “culture that sustains a positive attitude toward failure.
- Prepare for the personal cost of failure by creating a support structures.
Two more successful-failure tips
- Spend more time discussing what you’ll do next than what you did wrong.
- Identify risk-taking and successful-failure training needs.
Failure and Social Media
Social Media is your friend if you’re prepared for and open with your failures. On the other hand, if you hide your failures, you’ll fail.
Other posted based on Li’s book:
Which successful-failure strategies do you find most relevant or useful?
What successful-failure strategies would you add to Li’s suggestions?
What would you have to comment on the cost of failure? Some failures can result in heads rolling so how do we encourage people to take the initiative and be willing to fail.
Great article Dan, I am a firm believer in “Separating people from the failure.” I’ve been the one who has failed before, I was lucky to be working for a great leader at the time. I went to him and told him I had failed, he didn’t flame throw me, we simply went over how I failed and ways to get it right the next time. I actually wrote about this incident last week. Thanks for this great blog and information. You are appreciated for your time,effort and expertise. http://voicesofleadership.blogspot.com/2010/12/after-failure-now-what.html
There can be a fine line between doing a root cause analysis to truly understand why a failure happened, and looking for places to point fingers.
I really like your line about spending more time talking about what to do next, and less time on who did what wrong. I think this can help us stay on the productive side of that fine line.
I think successful- failure strategies that are most relevant are understanding boundaries. Failure that helps to identify boundary or limit is successful failure. Whereas success that hinders to identify boundary is failure because it may deceive you in future. So, we should realise what can be changed and what can not be changed. Failure distrubs you and it disperses effort. Failure also provide opportunity to know yourself and often opens options to look for.
I think the other successful-failure strategies that can be added are ; focussing on strengths than to compete with other, finding the gap between required knowledge, skills and try to bridge gap. I believe that when we compare with other duing our failure, we actually undermines our strengths. and try to do anything and everything to match external demand. And that is the time, when we compromise with our values. So, the greatest challenge during failure is to preserve and protect our values. For this perseverance, humility and humbleness are the best friend.
Enjoy Dans Tweets and emails. Leadership is always welcomed when done right, others will follow. Then there are those with a title, yet they are fools them self, and only fools will follow. When I lead, I want it done right. I am willing to learn, and listen.
Good points especially doing the post-mortems. Our organization would be wise to heed to this article but won’t because we’re too busy finding the magic bullet that will guarantee us success.
Let us all know George when you find the new messiah!
I could not agree more.
My first boss, after graduating from College was a grizzled old war horse, who would describe a project and ask me how I thought I would tackle the project. I would discuss my plans and we never said no, just asked a few more questions then told me to “have at it”.
When it did not work out as I had envisioned, we would ask a few questions and ask me what “we” could do differently next time and what had “we” learned.
Over time I realized that I was leaning more from my mistakes, than from my successes, but my successes were increasing at an exponential rate.
It was then that I started to look at continuous improvement and critically examining outcomes, and then I started to see that even in success, there was plenty of room for improvement.
#4 gave me pause for thought because it’s something I hadn’t considered. I seldom, if ever, consider the personal cost in such a way as to give consideration to support structures for myself. I generally think in terms of support structures for others, but conclude that my own failures I must take responsibility for and muddle through whatever results. In other words, accept the consequences, but without consideration of any kind of support. I do generally view failure as a learning opportunity, but the scope of any one failure could carry high personal costs. Enjoying LF and your posts. Thanks for the insights.
Most relevant? “Separate the person from the failure” is an important one. If we are talking an organization, obviously that person did not just drop down from the sky into the organization without someone, sometime along the way selecting them based on their merits/assets … and ostensibly the organization has been continuing to train and evaluate that individual. So to lay all the blame for a failure on a person without incorporating the organization’s responsibility to itself, to provide sufficient structure, is completely wrong (and I know plenty of orgs have deficient training and evaluation … but it’s an ideal!).
What would I add? Back when my daughter was doing gymnastics and I sat for hours at the gym watching many young athletes train, there was a female gymnast about a year younger than my daughter (so let’s say she was 9 or so) who was on target to be an elite gymnast, meaning that she was training at a level far advanced from most of the gymnasts. She was having to learn things that would make a layperson or any non gymnast (and many gymnasts) cringe, like doing a back tuck (backflip) on the balance beam (you know, that 4″ wide piece of wood four feet up in the air …). It seemed like week after week she just stood on the beam and cried. Her coach just stood there and waited. I didn’t get why the coach just stood there instead of trying to cheer her on — but I think the coach wisely knew that the gymnast had to face potential failure in her mind before her body could attempt the feat (which, I might add, she went on to do repeatedly – she is still a gymnast three years later after most girls her age left the sport). The successful-failure tip that comes out of this? When you expect great things out of someone, you need to find a balance between telling them what to do, encouraging them to go ahead and do it, and them finding the inner resources to come to grips with the idea of potential failure (and success) and proceed ….
My husband and I have been self-employed entrepreneurs since 1975… If we were afraid of failure, we’d never have ventured out. We’ve had our successes, yes, but I’m convinced we’ve learned more from our failures. The secret to any success is to learn from your mistakes and not to make them again! Great post. These materials are valuable to all of us and I will certainly share some of them with my classes. Think I may have to get a copy of this book!
I think this is a very important post. We tend to focus on blame and pointing fingers but it is more important to focus on problem solving and being solution focused. I know that sounds like an adjectival pile-up but I do believe that focusing on how to introduce the fix and then look at improvement on a continuing basis as Tony described is a more successful approach. Martha
I have found that spending more time spending on what to do next can be very important. When I ventured out of a secure job and started a new business on my own among many things that I did not prepare for was failure financially. I had not anticipated the sudden stop in business and thought I had failed and then abandoned the business all together and went back to the secure, but less fulfilling job.
I have since learned that better preparation is key to succeeding though failure. If failure happens that you don’t have to totally abandon the idea but take away what works and see if it is viable to succeed once it is fixed. Today I continue to learn, as I am have from this post, better ways to cope with and push through failure. As long as a person is willing to be a life long learner success can be achieved.
While I do not like to be less than successful at any project or task I would undertake, I have learned valuable lessons from those shotcomings versus the thrill of having succeeded and grown complacent. It’s a valuable lesson that past success does not gurantee future success. You must give it your all at every turn—- regardless.
Thanks Dan for your series of conversations on this fascinating topic. I believe one of the most important conversation one has with failure is the opportunity to reflect and learn from it. Leadership is a journey, one where “self-assessment” is critical. When one takes the time and responsibility for reflecting on actions, and being open to receive feedback from others, one grows. No matter what failure, small or big, being able to observe our actions from a distance and replaying the “film” opens up worlds of discoveries. At times this can be scary, but the rewards are huge. This has been my experience, and makes everyday worth “failing” for, to build an ever lasting rock-solid foundation based on learning, being humble, serving, and leading by example. Cheers Dan and others.
I thought the part about preparing for worst-case scenarios before jumping into risk-taking situations is interesting. It’s the whole fail to plan, plan to fail game. Great insight on being someone in a position of authority but who is approachable because of vulnerabilities and truthfulness in failures.
Acknowledging failure is a great teaching tool when mentoring younger professionals. Discuss failures at staff meetings – not personal failures, those should be done in private. But failures of ideas or failed decisions are great food for thought and get everyone thinking about how to avoid the failure in the future. As a side benefit, it makes the boss seem more approachable when she acknowledges a failure to staff; they’re then less afraid to bring a dilemma to the boss.
Everyone has setbacks in their life. Learning from them and growing as a result is a key to success. Those that can’t admit to themselves that they have failed are limiting their growth. Reflection is a critical step in any learning process:
Tim G mentioned the reactive approach of a root cause analysis, which lends lessons learned. The cultural and leadership challenge there is not to engage in finger pointing as there are usually just as many fingers pointing back at leadership for that failure.
There is nothing ‘wrong’ with a reactive approach, in fact Charlene Li seems to endorse it. It is just one more tool to use to keep improving.
Maybe the discussion is also about what is ‘wrong’ with failure? As a culture, we do perceive failure as a negative and it is knee jerk leap to personalize it unfortunately. Balakrishna seems to be in an environment where not only is it wrong, but that there are severe punitive actions.
Proactive approaches such as failure mode and effects analysis with variations of hva or rva get a culture to brainstorm the negative outcomes along with ways to mitigate them. Shifts the mindset.
How to mitigate long-standing negative perceptions and change a culture…requires a very progressive and far-sighted leadership. Like trust, it takes time. One way is to apply a multi-modal approach…talk about it, write about it, see it, taste it and most importantly walk the talk and do it.
If, leadership has a new project and before starting openly states, it may fail, but we can learn from it, that is a start. If leadership says it may even fail miserably, but it is worth trying because it benefits our service or our customers, we will do it. And if leadership says, it may fail and we are going to celebrate that failure…be ready for strange looks. Of course, leadership has to follow through on the celebration…that also is the time for the root cause analysis. That also is the time to thank all those involved in the failure for their efforts…again be ready for strange looks.
Finally to tie to social media and media in general, the way leadership conducts itself, not in success, but in failure is the true measure of successful leadership. Now those leadership actions are more and more visible on multiple platforms and do need to be transparent to succeed.
Must be why we are so blessed. JK Fear of failure is way worse than the number one rated fear of public speaking. I love it.
I will say that I’ve learned more from my failures than I have from my successes. I’m thankful that I have a support system in place to discuss my failures and the lessons learned from them.
In working with the organization I currently serve, I have discovered, given a severe chapter of dysfunction that nearly caused it to close, that help the leadership learn from failure is an important but fragile thing. In trying to open up the leadership I have to deal with my own anxiety first and then help others be able to talk about our failures in ways that do not cause their anxiety level to keep them from speaking out as they should. A good post Dan!
One of the hardest things for people and organizations to do today is creating and living in this type of culture. So necessary thought.
#’s 1 & 3 are top of the list for me. We must acknowledge failure, we just look silly if we don’t. We must separate the person from the failure, we become oppressors if we don’t. On the flipside is a great deal of credibility and freedom for people to truly succeed.
Thanks again for your resource.
Great post on failure! Failure has definately taught me some valuable lessons. I’ve learned to be more tolerant and open to other people’s ideas/perspectives. I’ve learned to stay humble and possess a teachable spirit. I really like what Tony said in his post regarding that even with success, there is still opportunity for improvement….I couldn’t agree more! Thanks for sharing!
“Which successful-failure strategies do you find most relevant or useful?”
Not getting hung up on the “failure” label. Instead of using labels to describe it as a series of failures, perhaps “research” rings a better tune. You know, it’s funny, in piano we call it practice. You don’t sit down to a new piece of music and play it flawlessly without practice. And most of us who aren’t considered top of the music game don’t sit down and play it flawlessly at all. Pretending you’re a virtuoso when you’re not does not work. The only way to get experience is to do.
Break it down into component parts to work with it when you’re having trouble. There’s a lot to be said for baby steps.
In the military they use after action reports. It’s not a blame game and it doesn’t focus on the negative. It’s pretty simply, what went right, what didn’t, what are the recommendations for the next time. Simple; informative.
I look forward to checking out Li’s book!
I find that my past failures (let’s call them snaffoos…since they weren’t complete failures) make the best stories that I can use to help coach and guide others. They didn’t feel funny at the time, but now they bring me joy and help me to laugh at myself – and let’s face it, give others an opportunity to laugh at me. Love this concept!!
Oh yes! Totally agree with you about past snafoos being great teaching stories, not to mention excellent cocktail party fodder!
great post. Failure and success are like two sides of a coin. There are equal chances of sucess or failures. Leaders who accept that and let their teams take risk will empower their team to learn from both success and failures. Teams that forget to learn from failures real fail and those who learn from failures are successfull in their own way.
Failure is never an option… Failure can lead to success. You cannot keep beating a dead horse expecting to win the race.
It’s easy to read books about failure, but hard to actually respond properly when it hits.
Failure is just another learning experience. Sometimes you know what you’re doing and fail, other times you succeed by sheer luck. Learn when you fail, learn when you succeed.
Great post, Dan! For some reason, we’re “wired” to view failure as a shameful thing, and as a personal circumstance.
I’ve always loved Thomas Edison’s statement about learning numerous ways “not to make a light bulb” before he finally found the right way.
When we embrace failure as a learning experience, and incorporate its lessons into what we do going forward, then nothing is lost and the results are priceless. However, when we reject failure as a shameful thing, we lose the opportunity to learn from the lesson that’s been imparted to us. The pain of failure is just that; painful and one of our most precious commodities, time, has been wasted.
Past failures provide the experiences and insights to allow me and those with whom I work to better analyze, quantify and qualify problems, requirements, risks and opportunities. Doing so goes a long way to minimize the impact of future failures as well as to maximize the probability of success.
Past failures also prepare me to better deal with the failure and, more importantly, to teach others that failure is not an end — simply a step along the path to success.
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” ~ Henry Ford
The issue is more than a personal one! It is the context for failure that is important. You need an environment where failure is supported and the learning teased out. In one where failure is seen as an anathema, no amount of personal choice or bravery is going to make that a learning experience. Once the environment is right, then you need to make the individual choice and grab the learning.
It is easier to say that you learn most from failure; at the moment of failure it is hard to deal with. However, when you meet people who have only seen success, they are usually insensitive, unable to listen and often poor leaders.
Acknowledging a failure and openly discussing the lessons learned can make a tremendous difference in transforming an organization’s culture, if done correctly.
For example, I was helping an organization implement lean. Prior to the lean training a group spent a considerable amount of money purchasing specialized conveyors. After the training started, the team realized this was detrimental to eliminating waste in that line. The plant manager used this as a positive learning experience for the entire company stating it was well worth the money since the team learned from their mistake. He praised the team for getting out their and trying. Before that, people were afraid to try anything in case they did something wrong. They were afraid to get in trouble. After that, the entire organization reaped the gains because people were not afraid of failure.
“I would like to lead, but I am too busy overtaking, in an effort to get out front.”
Failure isn’ that bad if you learn from it. Failure is pretty cheap too unless you’ve taken some wild risks.
Great article… can definitly use this when working with student leaders at Marshall University!
My daughter goes to Marshall, Glad to see she has good professors looking out for their students. Nice to have connected with you.
Thanks for the encouragement to openly discuss the failure and focus on the next steps. I always enjoy having candid, open conversations about the challenges and successes of an initiative or project. Thank you!
This is a great concept. I will definitely look at failure differently from now on.
To Li’s list, I would add: Don’t waste time assigning blame. Look to how the failure can be prevented in the future. Similar to Li’s number 3, but extending to circumstances, as well as people. Usually, too much time is spent on assigning blame.
(Like a copy of Open Leadership)
“Double Your Rate of Failure”
Tom Watson, IBM
Hello there, Would love to have a copy!
Thanks for the Posts featuring Charlene, what a resource! Led me to Altimeter group; Looking forward to exploring it!
I couldn’t agree more with “Spend more time discussing what you’ll do next than what you did wrong.” Too often organizations focus on what went wrong – or more likely, who’s to blame for the failue. It is important to understand what happened, but only in the context of how we can use that to make things better in the future.