Why Leaders Need To Fail To Succeed

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

Failure is one of the things we most commonly fear in leadership roles and people go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it. Often this means you minimise risk-taking and yet this is one of the main prerequisites of a leader – what a dilemma.

I spent many years running a dynamic trade association for bioscience companies. It involved talking to a range of stakeholders including politicians and the media. It was an intensive high profile job.

I placed a high value on reacting to journalists enquiries whenever they called. This meant I needed to think on my feet and respond quickly. On the whole, I got this right but on one occasion when I was called by a Sunday Broadsheet reporter on a Saturday afternoon for a comment, I effectively called for the Home Secretary’s resignation. As I hung up the phone, I remember getting that sinking feeling that what I had said might be taken out of context.

I had a sleepless night and when I picked up my Sunday paper I knew that our political stakeholders would be unhappy. So when the phone rang on Monday afternoon and my PA said it was the Prime Minister’s office, I knew there would be some explaining to do!

I hated having made a mistake so publicly. I felt embarrassed and wished I could hide until it had all blown over! But as Chief Executive that was not an option. I didn’t want to apologise but in order to maintain good relations I had to sacrifice my ego. On this occasion, it was important to admit a mistake, say sorry and draw a line underneath it because there was something more important at stake.

Thinking about some of your mistakes- how did you respond? What lessons did you learn?

Reflecting on what lessons I learnt now that much “water has flowed under the bridge” I am reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s comment in Scoop “News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead.” By Tuesday the media had moved on. For 48 hours, it felt like I was in the “hot” seat but there was no long term impact. I lived to fight another day.

When you are in the middle of a media storm hanging on to the perspective that it will end is vital.

Apologising promptly also calmed things down. The irony being, in today’s society, that so few politicians apologise quickly.

I also chose how to view my failure – it was a set back. One set back is just that – a set back- which is beautifully illustrated in Myshkin Ingawale’s TED talk. He failed (or tried) 32 times but in the end he created a simple, low cost, portable device that can test for anaemia which is a major cause of death in childbirth in many places in the world. Check it out. It’s hugely inspirational.

By focussing on what you have learnt and what you would do differently next time stops undue ‘navel gazing’ and it’s productive. I learnt that calling for a high profile politician to resign creates waves! Knowing when to create waves and when not to needs careful reflection. I learnt to give myself time to reflect and yet still be responsive when answering media enquiries.

And finally, the comment that really strikes a cord with me is “the fear of failure is often more career limiting than failure itself”. As I can testify, this incident did not have a detrimental effect on my career. It was ‘character building’ and I learnt resilience in adversity. Thomas Edison failed over 1000 times before he invented the light bulb. Just imagine what our lives would be like if he hadn’t kept trying.

What’s been keeping you awake at night …? What is the risk you are wanting to take …? What new and exciting idea do you have that the world needs …? If you are struggling with the fear of failure or the perception of failure then email me and book an executive coaching consultation.