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Embrace Failure, Achieve Greatness

"Forget the failures. Keep the lessons." - Dalai Lama

Take a moment and think about how the risk of failure plays in your life as a leader. In working with clients from entrepreneurs to C-level executives, my observation is that many executives tread somewhere in what may feel like a “no man’s land” of fearing failure and achieving a personal/organizational best. Most of us, when confronted with certain failure, will take a safer road to avoid the pain of ridicule, the humiliation of scrutiny, or the perception of our own incompetence. Avoiding embarrassment and judgment is a huge barometer in how much we will avoid taking a risk, and that’s part of the human condition.   

And yet we know, at least intellectually, that without some failure in life, we won’t grow, and world-changing things like electricity, medical advances and flight would never have happened, right?

Taking risks and being willing to fail begins with our own mindset, and it’s a skill you can develop, whether you are an entrepreneur, executive or rising star. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Start with your strengths. Know your strengths, and have facts to prove that something is your strength based on outcomes you’ve achieved. Stepping out and taking a risk is easier when we are coming from a place of strength, knowledge and expertise. Where you have had good judgment and success is a great place to stretch what you do and take some risks, because you are building on what you already know is true.
  • Create a new norm around giving and receiving feedback. Debrief everything you do and be fearlessly open to giving and receiving feedback. Seeking root causes for failure will help you be more successful the next time, and, in the debriefing process, you can assess roles, responsibilities, structure, strategy and other areas where the project/idea went sideways. Feedback stings less over time when it becomes a habit and expectation, rather than a source of pain and embarrassment.
  • Be a role model.  The “shadow of the leader” concept says that in organizations, people watch what others do and emulate that behavior over time. If you have children, you know that this is true. Decide what you want to model, and observe how it translates in your team. If you model fear and suspicion, your team also will exhibit that behavior. If you truly support your team in taking risks, and create a process to assess and honor risks and outcomes, your team will be much more willing to embrace the fear and move through it successfully.
  • Commit to lifelong learning. Learning has to be an intentional practice, not just attending a random workshop or training session. Being in conversation with others, testing ideas and thinking critically about what’s important to you and your organization is a practice, not a drive-by behavior. I’ve had the benefit of working with and for a number of leaders who make a daily habit out of journaling and setting aside time to think about their leadership and their industry, as well as being in conversation with others as a way to build connections and foster learning about differing points of view. 

Embracing failure requires courage and intention. As leaders, we run the risk of missing opportunities for greatness and innovation by dumbing down our work to what’s safe and easy. It begins with a personal journey.