Embracing failure

Former Tall Blacks coach, Tab Baldwin, made an interesting observation about Kiwis’ relationship to failure.  When New Zealanders fail at something, he asserted, we make it mean we are a failure.  We fail, ergo we are a failure.  We are also quick to condemn others if they fail. Observe radio talk back about Dean Barker after the America’s Cup.  This cultural dynamic acts as a handbrake on leadership because leadership and failure are blood brothers.

Leadership, by definition, is about the new and different – about venturing into the unknown.  When you venture into the unknown there’s no roadmap or well-beaten track to follow.  Even if you plan meticulously there’s a good chance something will go wrong.  We fear being judged when we fail and this fear suppresses leadership.  Better to play it safe, we think, and stick to the beaten track.

Leaders have to manage risk, but a fear of failure leads to making only incremental improvements.  A willingness to dive into the unknown, while being fully aware that failure is a distinct possibility, can lead to breakthrough performance and competitive advantage

So how do we re-engineer our response to failure?  First, recognise the irony in the set-up.  As a leader you are always going to be judged, either for your failures when you do act, or your failure for not acting.  Damned if you do and damned if you don’t!  The safety of watching from the stands is an illusion – so you may as well strap on the boots and get on the field of play.

Second, normalise failure as a core part of leadership and change.  Relate to failure as part of the territory.  Failure is simply feedback that something is not working. That’s all.  Embrace and own the word – take the sting out of it. The gay community did this with “queer”.  They transformed it from an insult into a positive term of identity.

Skateboarders are leading the charge on this new relationship to failure.  Watch a bunch of skaters and you will hear them use the fail word all the time to describe not landing a trick.  An “epic fail” is when a trick goes very wrong.  They banter the word about and simply relate to the fail as feedback.  They learn from it and use it to help them land the trick the next time.

Third, prepare for failure.  In our leadership programmes we often run a game called stepping-stones.  Two teams compete to cross a stretch of grass using pieces of cardboard as stepping-stones.  They each spend ten minutes planning their strategy.  In the planning stages very rarely does anyone ask “okay, and what will we do if it all turns to custard?” Predictably something does go wrong for one of the teams and they fall apart.  Human nature is to assume that everything will go swimmingly. Good leaders ask “how are we going to handle things if and when they go wrong?”.  Engaging in this question allows you to respond to failure with a cool head rather than in the frenzy of the moment.

To lead is to fail sometimes.