August 9, 2022

What about your failures? How do you deal with them as a leader?

By Tony Boobier

I’ve published a lot on this blog recently about improvement & achievement, even mastery, what about failures? In the real world of course leaders are failing all the time. I’m sure you’ve experienced some kind of failure (hopefully not major) not that long ago. But perhaps we don’t talk about it enough.

In a world where many leaders are coaching their teams & organisations to fail fast and value learning from more agile ways of working, this commission is ironic. But if you look at the majority of content published for leaders, not much focuses on failures. I can understand the desire to focus on what leaders seek (success & positive progress). But what if failures are necessary steps on that journey?

To help us reflect on that topic, I welcome back one of our regular guest bloggers, Tony Boobier. Readers may remember that Tony is an international author & mentor in AI & Analytics. Now Tony has previously shared with us related topics, including healthy scepticism, communicating bad news & discernment. In this post, he looks directly at failures.

Leadership failures – what do we think about those?

When we think about leadership, naturally we look for clues and hints about how to be successful and effective. What are the leadership ‘tricks of the trade’ to ensure success? There is however another perhaps darker side to leadership, and that is failure. How do leaders cope with being unsuccessful, and when that happens how do they pick themselves up and start all over again? How many times is it reasonable to fail? Is failure just part of an inevitable learning curve, which provides experience and a lesson as how to now do things?

It’s always helpful to try and put this topic in some sort of context. The outgoing UK Prime Minister’s comment of “hasta la vista” in his departure speech, conveniently omitted the second part of that famous Arnold Schwarzenegger phrase which states “I’ll be back“. It also provides an interesting and important clue about how one leader coped when things haven’t gone as expected, but his personal behaviour isn’t unique. History is littered with ‘Comeback Kids’. Churchill recovered from political disaster following the Dardanelles. Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from Elba to reform a second Empire. In business, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Bill Gates, James Dyson and Steve Jobs all have comeback stories to tell.  

Few leaders accept that failure is the end of the road. It seems that they are either:

  • hard-wired to accept defeat, in the way that many elite sports people are;
  • have developed effective coping strategies;
  • or have an ego which leads them to the conclusion that failure was everyone else’s fault but theirs.

For those leaders, failure can be painful but not necessarily terminal. 

Painful Leadership – that title won’t sell many books

The element of ‘pain’ or personal physical discomfort is an interesting part of failure. It sometimes reveals itself in tightness or ‘gripe’ in the tummy, an increase in heartbeat or a physical desire to move and leave the scene of the incident. These symptoms are often associated with stress and anxiety, and if left unmanaged, can also lead to depression. Our physical response to failure can also relate to the degree of emotion invested in success, especially when the stakes are comparatively high. I personally remember times earlier in my career when I faced failure. I felt a physical sickness in my gut. 

Why should failure trigger such as physiological reaction? Scientists believe that this could be connected in some way to the most elemental Darwinian principle of survival. Failure triggers a fear of rejection which ultimately reduces how secure we feel. We biologically enter a “fight or flight mode“.

There are different ways of coping with failure. Many seasoned and experienced leaders recognise that there will be other personal or career options available to them. In one form or another, they simply put failure into the ‘setback’ box. Acceptance of failure and the ability to manage personal emotions seems to provide an effective way forward, especially when coupled with understanding what has happened. Self-awareness can also help to reframe the negative experiences in a different way. Putting the situation into perspective. It’s also an important part of the process of planning for the future. In other words, failure becomes a setback but need not in itself be a defining moment. 

Do entrepreneurs love failures too much?

Serial entrepreneurs seem to take failure on the chin but keep bouncing back again. For many, it is a matter of taking a positive viewpoint and fine-tuning their product or approach. James Dyson refers to “a few thousand” prototypes as part of his development process. For others, it’s as if they haven’t learned their lessons, or even worse, blame everyone and everything but themselves for what has happened. Investors are usually keen to ensure that any investment is de-risked, and are especially eager to understand an individual’s experience of failure and what has been learned. 

Motivation and failure go hand in hand. Those with the greatest motivation and desire for success have no fear of failure. Do some have foolish blindness that failure might occur? A task-orientated approach or a disciplined project-managed approach can offset the potential for something not turning out as expected. Effective mentoring and a degree of experience can also help. But neither provides an absolute guarantee regarding the impact of external factors or ‘Lady Luck’. 

Perhaps we are being slightly misled in terms of our chance of success? Innovation centres appear to be popping up everywhere as if shared office space has become a panacea for favourable outcomes. There’s no end to self-help books, motivational talks and (if I dare say it) blogs which emphasize the positive. The increased ease of having a job ‘on the sidethrough online platforms also reinforces the alleged simplicity of being a successful entrepreneur. This can prove a temptation at a time when household finances have become tighter. These are all helpful assets, and in some situations can provide a catalyst, but in themselves, they don’t provide any certainty of a successful outcome.  

How could you better prepare if you foresaw failures?

Perhaps at the end of the day, failure as an outcome is perhaps just one possible by-product of leadership but also of innovation and entrepreneurship. Like drowning sailors, we cling to the verbal flotsam and jetsam of other failed businessmen in the hope of avoiding their fate. Business dictionaries also are littered with catchy phrases about failure but they are a poor substitute for real-life experience. 

Homer Simpson hits the nail on the head, saying “You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is – never try”. He sagely adds, “Trying is the first step towards failure.”  It would be a pessimistic or slightly depressed businessman or woman who looks to Homer Simpson as their role model or business guru. However, by recognising that failure might be an option, doesn’t it help us mentally prepare not only for the best but also for the worst?

Thanks to Tony for his contribution. I can always count on him for a contrarian perspective on current management thinking. On this topic, I agree that he has a point. A poor understanding of Positive Leadership can lead some to ignore even the potential of failure. Often leading to inadequate preparation. What about you dear reader? How could you prepare better for the rest of this year if you consider better what could go wrong? Which potential failures do you feel well prepared to mitigate?