In Praise Of Failure

By Eileen McDargh

As counter-intuitive as this sounds given the massive failure of global financial institutions and the despicable revelations about executive payouts in companies like Lehman Brothers and AIG, much can be learned from failure. In fact, our very reluctance to admit that something is NOT working is one of the reasons for our current protracted wars, severe financial meltdown, and no wide and deep commitment to develop alternative energy sources.

British author J.K.Rowling pushed the failure envelope in her 2008 speech to the graduating class of Harvard. She admitted that it was at the lowest point of her life (single parent, no job, one step away from being homeless) that she decided to stop pretending to be anyone else but herself and throw all her energies into writing. The Harry Potter series and a fortune of $1.1 billion testify to Rowling's belief that "you will emerge wiser and stronger, secure in your ability to survive."

Abandon ego but never your integrity

Integrity means adherence to moral and ethical principles, honesty, and soundness of moral character. Integrity could also be interpreted as faithfulness to one's self and one's ability whereas ego is viewed in terms of what others think. Some of the world's most impressive successes started out as failures. Beethoven's teacher told him he was hopeless as a composer and then, even as he became deaf, Beethoven wrote ravishing music. Churchill suffered numerous defeats in WWII and was kicked out of office. Yet, he is still regarded as England's greatest wartime hero.

Michael Phelps astounded the Olympic swimming world, and yet his childhood was marked by failures to fit in. As Churchill stated, "Success is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." Or perhaps Henry Ford who went bankrupt many times before getting Ford Motor Company off the ground said it best. "Failure is the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently."

Don't hide failure, focus on learning

Throwing the same strategies and tools at a failure is destined to only get more of the same. Research conducted by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck confirms that when failure is viewed as a learning experience, people respond with greater effort. Those who believe they have only a finite talent for learning report that they stop trying and might even consider cheating to get ahead. In the business world, risk - and possible failure - is essential for success.

Companies like Apple and Xerox encourage effort and innovation and see failure as a steppingstone.

One of the bigger leadership mistakes would be to use social systems to bail people out of their failures rather than use systems to help people learn from such failures. No excuses. Just lessons learned and next steps to take.

The opposite of success isn't failure but mediocrity

Failed companies are rarely the fodder for case studies. That's unfortunate because we have much to learn from the failure. In his book, The Strategy Paradox, Michael Raynor, a professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Canada, looks at the Sony flop of its Betamax video-cassette versus Matsushita's VHS technology. Sony lost because it maintained an iron grip on licensing and high cost whereas Matsushita used opposite strategies. Although Sony lost, no one would regard Sony as a failed enterprise. WHY? Because Sony continued to take big risks and learn from them. The firm COULD have sunk into mediocrity.

Look beyond the result

In the world of science and technology, amazing innovations have come as a result of what might be termed "failure". The ability to see beyond the obvious has given rise to everything from rubber tires and post-it notes to Viagra and wine-in-a-box.

Faced with failure in many of our organizations and our national systems, we have two choices: hunker down, hide and live a mediocre life. Or - we can participate in our own leadership spheres of influence to learn from these failures and create something stronger, durable, and equitable for all.

(c) 2008, McDargh Communications

Known as a powerful presenter and facilitator, Eileen McDargh, CSP, CPAE has been creating conversations that matter and connections that count since 1980. Executive Excellence ranks her among the top 100 thought-leaders in leadership development. Her newest book, Gifts from the Mountain, received the 2008 Ben Franklin book award. To hire Eileen as a speaker, coach or retreat leader visit


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