Why The Way Business Leaders Talk About Failure Is All Wrong
We learn about failure very early in life.
As kids, we raced one another on the playground during recess or after school. No matter how many kids were in the race, there were just two possible outcomes: You won or you lost. It was the same in school. In every class, either you passed or you failed. I believe this win-or-lose perspective has caused many of us to label everything we do as either a success or a failure, especially acts that relate to our careers.
Many people see leaders as success stories or complete failures. Elon Musk and Susan Wojcicki, for example, are celebrated for their contributions to their respective industries, while Elizabeth Holmes is often known as a billionaire who lost everything. All three individuals built lasting legacies for themselves, but people speak very differently about them.
I am not here to tell you failure does not exist; Holmes obviously did make serious missteps with Theranos and is facing charges of “massive fraud” as a result. On the contrary, I believe we tend to overlook failures when they are followed by successes. We are so mesmerized by the idea of success and notoriety that we often forget the hundreds of stories of failure that preceded many success stories. Every great leader has stumbled and fallen before overcoming their mistakes, so why do we not hear more about this?
I believe we don’t hear more about failures because the way we talk about them is all wrong. We have become so accustomed to thinking in terms of success vs. failure, rather than success because of failure. Here’s why I feel that needs to change.
Failure is not a character trait.
You can experience failure one time or one thousand times, but those experiences do not make you a failure. Stop talking about failure as if it is a defining characteristic. After all, a failure is an external event. You can flop in a presentation. You can fall short of your sales goals. You can implement a new process that no one ends up using. Such failures are temporary setbacks, not identifiers of who you are as an employee, manager or CEO.
Great success can come from great failures.
When people fail, it can deliver a massive blow to their self-worth and self-esteem. When you make a mistake, you likely want the embarrassment and torment to subside as quickly as possible, so you might choose to cover up your feelings and move on. But contrary to that tendency, we cannot choose between failure and success.
Instead, recognize that failure is a critical part of what you can achieve. Robert Kennedy is famously attributed with the phrase, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” I could not agree with that sentiment more. The bigger you dream, the bigger you will fail. But these failures, and the lessons they teach, can ultimately bring you closer to your goal.
Such failure-inspired lessons reflect a phenomenon known as “intelligent failure.” Intelligent failures concern mistakes that arise when leaders take thoughtful risks in uncharted territories. The disappointment that comes from these unsuccessful experiments lends itself to useful learning that can propel a company — and, more importantly, an industry — forward.
In other words: Intelligent failure is a byproduct of innovation. When we link resilience to growth and innovation, failure can become a positive learning experience rather than a scarlet letter of incompetence.
You can net something out of every life experience.
Some leaders catapult themselves to the forefront of their industries on the back of failure because they know failure is the best teacher. You cannot view failure as a learning opportunity if even the smallest mistakes paralyze you. In that same vein, you cannot learn from your mistakes if you confuse your self-worth with a perfect track record — an impossibility in business. When such misperceptions preclude learning from failure, ego can be a leader’s biggest enemy.
So, instead of trying to bury your mistakes, face them head-on. The key to curing a mistake is overcoming the roadblock that’s preventing you from meeting a goal. Confronting your failures also enables you to avoid making the same mistake in the future. I believe we net something out of every life experience, even if that situation feels insurmountable at the time.
The best thing you can do is to reflect on your failures openly. Instead of discussing how horrible a situation was, ask yourself — and those around you — what you should have done differently and what you learned as a result. If you are more vocal and transparent about your journeys to success, you can begin to recognize failure as a necessary step to improving yourself, rather than a toxic buzzword.
I believe the way we currently talk about failure scares people away from taking risks, even risks they know are worth taking. From my perspective, leaders who instead embrace failure as a means of propelling themselves beyond their perceived limitations can be bolder, braver and more successful. Stop being afraid to fail. Instead, prepare yourself for greatness by embracing failure and learning from it.