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.