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Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

How Can We Learn To Value Failure?

Seeing failure as a learning opportunity

In my previous piece, I wrote about how we can ascertain what success really looks like beyond simply attempting to duplicate the efforts or accomplishments of those we admire. Given how much this piece resonated with my readers, I’d like to follow this up by addressing the other side of this equation.

Namely, that if we are to be truthful about the nature of success and the journey we take to achieve it, then we must address its travelling companion – that of failure.

The notion of an interdependence between success and failure – beyond simply being opposing outcomes that arise from our collective efforts – is perhaps best seen when we consider the nature of stories that revolve around a hero-type figure facing a seemingly unstoppable adversary.

As much as we cheer when the story’s protagonist achieves their goal, we feel that sense of elation most when they dust themselves off after they fall and use their failure to not only fuel their resolve, but to improve their understanding of what they need to do to ultimately succeed.

After all, their moments of epiphanies surface not during those heady moments of success, but as a result of what they discover and learn during those dark periods as they struggle with the failure they’ve endured.

When seen from this context, the question then becomes how can we ourselves learn to value failure? How can we move beyond seeing failure as painful and difficult to an opportunity to learn what will help us to move forward and prevail?

As with the nature of success, we first need to understand that the journey of learning and gaining insights from our failures is a personal one.

With this in mind, I’d like to provide you with a series of questions to reflect on both when things are going well to help you prepare for that inevitable failure, as well as when you’re right in the thick of it so you can appreciate what lessons there are to be learned to help you move forward:

1. Do you respond to failure with avoidance or curiosity?
Given how failure is often a painful experience that allows feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt to bubble to the surface, it’s understandable that our initial response is one of avoidance; where we feel compelled to do whatever we can to prevent this situation from happening again.

Unfortunately, this response often leads us to stop pursuing the course we’ve been taking to ensure that we don’t experience this difficult and painful outcome again.

While this self-protective mechanism is needed at times – for example, when we accidentally touch a hot surface – we have to be mindful of how in other times it can serve to impede us from learning more about what caused this failure in the first place.

A good example of this in action can be seen in the work being done in the field of gamification, where researchers have shown that people build and improve their skills not by avoiding tasks that lead to a failed outcome, but from using those failures to teach them what they need to do to succeed in achieving that goal.

As I mentioned in my piece on how to identify what success would look like, being effective as a leader doesn’t mean you need to have all the answers. Consequently, failure doesn’t have to be something that we avoid as it serves to identify gaps in our knowledge or awareness. In other words, our failure can provide us with key insights that can help us move one step closer to achieving our shared goals.

2. Is failure viewed as being a sign of weakness?
Another challenge we face with failure is dealing with the reality that we haven’t progressed through our efforts. Instead, we’ve stumbled and maybe even fallen a step or two behind from where we planned on being.

In this light, it’s easy to view failure as a being a sign of weakness because of our inability to achieve a certain target and goal, not to mention the costly outcomes that arose because of that mistake.

And yet, the reality is that our failure can provide us with some unique insights and understandings of what’s truly required from us to ultimately be successful in our efforts. They can shed light on certain assumptions we had going forward about what we’re trying to produce and perhaps even the supposed value of what we’re trying to create.

Our failures can also reveal misguiding thinking on our part of what it is we need to accomplish to achieve our goals or even what’s the best route to reach that target. Finally, these failures can reveal unexpected gaps in our competencies to reach our shared goals, competencies that we need to address if we are to succeed in our collective efforts.

Seen from this context, it becomes easier to appreciate how our failures are not so much an indication of weakness, but an opportunity to improve our understanding of the situation and of what we really need to do to accomplish our goals, both of which can only serve to strengthen our resolve to prevail despite the current setback.

3. How will you commit to failure in the long run?
This question might seem a bit odd. After all, who wants commit to making mistakes?

But the commitment I’m referring to here is not simply about failing fast in terms of getting over these hurdles quickly so we can move one step closer to our goals. Rather, it’s about opening ourselves up to the reality that regardless of what we’ve achieved or accomplished today, we will inevitably face failure again sometime down the road.

Sometimes that failure will have us shaking our heads in disbelief that we didn’t see it coming. Others, though, can shake us to our very core and have us questioning our abilities and whether we really want to keep pressing ahead.

Regardless of the severity, what we need to do is be honest with ourselves and with those we serve that a time may come where we might falter, but that failure won’t shake our commitment to accepting this as part of the journey that we need to undergo to achieve our shared purpose.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to wait for the ground to fall beneath us. Rather, it means that we have to be willing to stop for a moment when things are moving forward or going well and ask ourselves, what could we be overlooking? What have we taken for granted will work out or continue to work out?

And perhaps most simply, how are we doing today? What things do my employees see as being slightly off or out of step in what we’re doing?

In other words, it’s about more than simply giving those we lead the permission to fail, but also being willing to stop what we’re doing today to assess what might lead us to fail tomorrow. It also means that we take what’s been revealed through our failures to adjust our efforts in order to remain on course over the long run.

No matter how many times we encounter failure, it will always be a challenge to rise above the feelings of uncertainty, fear, loss, and self-doubt. That’s why it’s important that we not forgot the following:

Through our successes, we inspire others. Through our failures, we relate to one another.

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24 Comments » | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | January 29, 2013 by |

24 Comments on

How Can We Learn To Value Failure?

  1. On January 30th, 2013 at 8:42 AM Joe Passkiewicz said:

    Great post! I think the fear of failure is rooted most deeply in self-doubt. A leader that leads with humility and love is prone to question if they are really good enough to be heading up the effort. Sometimes some reverse encouragement- encouragement from the team members to the leader- is a great way to help overcome the feeling of self-doubt. I have been in situations where I have sensed the self-doubt in my leader and have encouraged them to help them get them past the feeling. A great way to "relate to one another" and connect again as a team. Failures can bind as tightly as success, if handled properly. Win together- lose together- right? Thanks for the post Tanveer!

  2. On January 30th, 2013 at 2:05 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    My pleasure, Joe. Glad you enjoyed it.

    I think your point of how employees can provide a source of encouragement for their leaders is a good point as allowing ourselves to be more open and accepting of the fact that we'll slip up now and then frees us up to be human. That's why I ended with the point about how it's our failures, more than our successes, that allows us to relate to one another.

    And it's not because we're allowing those we lead to see our imperfections, but because we're being open to addressing them and to do a better job as their leader despite them.

  3. On January 30th, 2013 at 3:49 PM Gary said:

    Tanveer:

    A very nice post. You know, I do believe that we're all obsessed with success (just Google it, 1.4 billion results; failure has about 1/3 the results). However, isn't it failure that truly produces change and results?

    For example, quarterbacks go right to the bench and review slides after a drive. It's that productive teaching that can drive success (that is, they have taught themselves to face their fear and learn from their situation).

    As for committing to failure, it's inevitable that we'll fail. So, it seems that we need to create a system to deal with that failure.

    However, don't we as team members need our leaders to be confident in the direction of their leadership? That is, if they are always "failing" then aren't they undermining their own abilities and, therefore, losing the faith of those following?

  4. On January 30th, 2013 at 8:25 PM Lori Benton said:

    Failure can only really happen within a safe environment. Admission of failure in this society is an act of moral courage. And typically the reward for this type of courage is a kick in the teeth.

    If any of you watch TED.com talks – I encourage you to watch Brene Brown's Vulnerability talk and then her follow up on Shame.

    Meantime – it is very important for leaders to be vulnerable and share failure. When followers see their leader is human it can actually strengthen the leader's ability to lead. My former boss is a retired 3-star. He showed vulnerability. To this day I will take a bullet for him. (Certainly there is a fine line…)

  5. On January 31st, 2013 at 2:09 PM Sharon Eisner said:

    I like your post on failure and agree with you about the importance of accepting failure as the inevitable road to success. Unfortunately our education system does not reward us for failure (which is an error), but generally only for success (achieving a good mark, or knowing the right answer). Rather, we should to be taught to welcome failure in our lives, for it is through failure, rather than success that we actually learn something new. All great inventions occurred after trial and error, which is massive failure. So, it would be useful if we rethought our definition of failure. A good book I have recommended to others, including my children is the book: Failing Forward by John Maxwell.

  6. On January 31st, 2013 at 2:26 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    That's a good question, Gary. I think it really depends on what type of competency we're talking about. Take, for example, decision-making. If a leader consistently makes the wrong decisions, it's not surprising that people would lose confidence in their ability.

    But notice how in this case, this would also indicate a failure to learn how to make the right decisions; how to properly assess potential outcomes and providing the proper response to deal with unexpected pitfalls.

    For people to accept a leader's failure, there needs to be both the acknowledgement that I refer to in the third question that we will fail along with the intent to learn from that experience so that you and your team don't find yourself back in that very same situation again.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful comment and question, Gary.

  7. On January 31st, 2013 at 2:30 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Absolutely, Lori. As I wrote in my piece, there's no question that failure is painful in large part because it can cause us to doubt ourselves and our abilities. And that kind of vunerability is especially difficult in the workplace where you don't want to be seen as incapable of doing the work you've been assigned.

    That's why I agree with you that it's important that we provide those we lead – as well as for ourselves – a safe environment where we can fail and learn to do and be better. After all, we all experience failure in the same way; the key differentiation lies in how we choose to respond to it.

  8. On January 31st, 2013 at 3:09 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Sharon,

    It is true that most education systems are still geared towards rewarding success and making failure something to avoid at all costs. Sir Ken Robinson has written and spoken so eloquently on this subject of how our schools need to evolve beyond the old model of creating 'factory workers' to tapping into the students' native strengths/talents and ability to learn.

    Unquestionably, part of that equation is facilitating and educating students on how to use failure to propel them forward than an event that holds them back.

  9. On February 2nd, 2013 at 9:58 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Good post, interesting thread of discussion. So my thought this morning to you and the group Tanveer is the following. What if we substitute the word failure with experimentation? Would that have a more positive spin (to Gary's point)? Would that create a different culture? Some of our greatest experiments have lead us to our greatest innovations. So let's try it:

    1.) Do you respond to experimentation with avoidance or curiosity?
    2.) Is experimentation viewed as a sign of weakness?
    3.) How will you commit to experimentation in the long run?

  10. On February 3rd, 2013 at 8:33 AM sorensjogren said:

    I have a toddler aged 2. I think there is a lot of wisdom found in observing kids play. During the play there seems to be no right nor wrong; the possibility of failure is non existent. There are only experiments. Some provide the intended result others don't.

    Later on we are being re-wired. As mentioned in the comments success are rewarded and failure has to be avoided.

    If we wan't a creative environment I think that it is the leader's job to create a place where failures are not only allowed but also encouraged. We learn from both success as well as failures.

    However, we also need to separate: There is a time for play and experiments and a time for avoiding failure at all costs.

  11. On February 3rd, 2013 at 11:38 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Jim,

    I don't think we need to rename failure or use another word in its place to make it more palatable. Rather, what I think need to do is make the effort in today's faster and interconnected world to create space and time for failure to not simply be reacted to, but that we try and see what we can learn from this undesired outcome.

    The fundamental problem is that we put such a high premium on success that anything less than that is undesired or to be avoided at all costs.

    For that reason, I think what we need to do is come clean about the necessity and inevitablility of experiencing failure and then creating an environment and providing tools where we can benefit from that experience.

  12. On February 3rd, 2013 at 11:39 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Astute observations, Soren. As with most other things in life, as much as with success, we need to embrace failure with moderation and not unconditionally welcome it at all times.

  13. On February 4th, 2013 at 9:03 PM Chris Akins said:

    Tanveer,

    Great post. In NLP, there is a pre-supposition that "there is no failure, only feedback." As long as we look at our failures as opportunities for learning and growth, we never truly fail. We only fail when we stop learning and trying.

    Chris

  14. On February 6th, 2013 at 4:05 AM Javier said:

    Dealing with failure is a great life lesson, much more important than dealing with success. I reckon if you learn one, then you will be able to manage both. Failures are simple corrections in your path, a great opportunity to review your goals and objectives, they make you better, you can help you grow your knowledge and awareness.

  15. On February 6th, 2013 at 9:14 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Chris; I'm glad you enjoyed it. You're absolutely correct that the only failure we should avoid is when we stop trying and learning from our mistakes.

  16. On February 6th, 2013 at 9:14 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Absolutely, Javier. Well said.

  17. On February 8th, 2013 at 7:46 PM Alastair Calderwood said:

    A lot of excellent observations here. Failure is truly only a state of mind and as pointed out, our education systems do not allow for failure to be a positive position. Failure is only bad if we learn nothing from it. The difference between success and failure is whether the outcome was desirable or not and not whether the process and decisions were correct. Simply put if it works try it again if it doesn't then, given the same situation and circumstances, do it differently. I think this is what is called experience. The most experienced are not always the oldest but those that have learned the most from every situation, success and failure.

  18. On February 11th, 2013 at 12:57 AM Hugo said:

    Thank you for the post. I think failing is something difficult for someone that is used to success. After some failures, the true notion of failure (the one you mention) surfaces up and the mindset towards it changes. Then we just embrace it as a way to learn and we are much more willing to try again.

  19. On August 1st, 2013 at 12:44 PM Make a Choice to Institutionalize Disruption ← Innovation Inside said:

    […] Consider what could be achieved within your organization if you were a leader that: Valued the success in failure […]

  20. On November 20th, 2013 at 6:20 PM Jaleel Hamid said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    Great post. I’m currently experiencing my own roller coaster ride, and therefore have taken an interest in studying failure in difference to success.

    If it has any interest, I recently posted two articles in relation to yours.
    First one on Survivorship Bias – "We should learn from mistakes, but pay for success stories": http://jaleelhamid.dk/vi-skal-laere-af-fejl-men-b

    The other post is about "How to become Lucky": http://jaleelhamid.dk/held-kan-dyrkes/ – Well it's actually more about studies (by Ph.d. Richard Wiseman) made on people that either consider themselves as lucky or unlucky. How do these people differ?

    Both are written in Danish (from Denmark), but there is always Google's browser translate tool.. plus the articles are really short. A quick read.
    Hoping for feedback and thanks again for a good read.

    Take care
    //Jaleel

  21. On April 4th, 2014 at 3:37 AM Annie Tyres said:

    Failure is the oldest teacher, and perhaps the wisest of them all. Some things are impossible to completely grasp without first banging your head against the wall repeatedly.

    I try to think of every failure as a learning experience instead of a disappointment. I sit down and write down what I did, analyze what I could have done better and take that with me when I try again. (only for long term projects)

    When failure gets me down, I might focus on another project for a few days, until it’s not so overwhelming anymore.. and then take a second look with a clear mind.

    Great post :)

  22. On June 18th, 2014 at 8:00 AM 5 Ground Rules for New Leadership Challenges - General Leadership said:

    […] In this vein, we also need to ensure that those we lead understand that we don’t view past failures as a sign of weakness, but instead as opportunities for us to learn about potential oversights and hidden gaps in our collective understanding. […]

  23. On July 21st, 2014 at 4:55 PM Revealing the Secret to Successful Leadership - DATIS blog said:

    […] that we don’t have all the answers, nor do we expect to. In so doing, we open the door to accepting failure as a learning experience because those moments reveal the hidden gaps in our collective knowledge and understanding. Of […]

  24. On September 4th, 2014 at 6:55 AM Realist said:

    Until companies do not automatically fire someone for failing, people will never want to fail.

    Thomas Edison took 2,000 tries to invent the light bulb. If he were an engineer in today's economy, he would have been shown the door long before try #2,000. Most likely around try#3.

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