We learn much more from our failures than we do from our successes. As leaders, our biggest lessons come from our toughest losses.
Let’s face it. There are two sides to every story: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; you take the bitter with the sweet; and every rose has its thorn.
But when it comes to great leadership, we only have half the story. There is a discernible gap in our fundamental understanding of what it takes to be an effective leader. There are literally dozens of books written about leadership success—books that want us to believe the sky is always blue and the road is always smooth. These books make us feel good. Unfortunately, we have become lulled into a false understanding of what it means to be a great leader.
Great leaders don’t always have blue skies. The reality is that we don’t learn how to be great leaders simply by imitating great leaders’ accomplishments—it’s not that easy. Being a great leader isn’t exclusively about making the “right” decision; often times, it is about how to proactively avoid making the “wrong” decision.
If you think about it, why do we study history? When we study history, we take note of what has worked in the past in order to replicate successes. Additionally, we consider challenges and failures in order to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. The same concept applies to making great leaders. We need to understand what has worked in the past—and why. We also need to understand what has not worked in the past—and why.
We have found a common theme among industry’s greatest leaders: their most important lessons have come from trial and error. Unfortunately, many of us don’t pursue the trial because we are fearful of making an error. In a recent interview with the Harvard Business School, A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Procter and Gamble, was asked if leaders can learn as much from success as they can from failure. His response: “No.” He went on to say that we learn much more from our failures than we do from our successes, and that our biggest lessons as leaders come from our toughest losses.
Mistakes are a part of taking healthy risk. They provide us with new ways of thinking and give us new insights into how we can improve as leaders. Real failure doesn’t come from making mistakes; it comes from avoiding errors at all possible costs, from the fear of taking risks, and from the inability to grow. Being mistake-free is not success. Still, we avoid challenges and hide mistakes. We don’t like to talk about them or bring attention to them. It’s safer to look the other way or sweep them under the rug. That’s why so many leaders have the same struggles over and over again.
So, why don’t we embrace challenges and become accepting of mistakes—to learn from them and ultimately grow from them? And if learning from mistakes has so much value, why is it taboo to even talk about mistakes in the context of business and leadership?
What Have You Done For Me Lately?
We are all evaluated on how well we perform our jobs. Not surprisingly, companies pay their employees to succeed, not to fail. The better the performance review, the better we are compensated. Yet performance reviews inherently reward us on our short-term successes and penalize us for our short-term mistakes. Rarely does someone receive a performance review spanning several years. But personal growth from mistakes is an evolutionary process. It takes time. Mistakes today usually hurt our performance evaluations in the short term.
So what do we do? We avoid them. Consider the Thomas Edison quote: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Do you think he would have lasted in today’s corporate environment? We have created an evaluation platform in which successes are celebrated and failures are not. Remember…“failure is not an option.” To be a fast-track leader, you can’t afford to make mistakes. So if you make a mistake, there may be pressure to bury it or blame someone else in order to avoid any negative consequences.
A Culture of Perfectionism
We live in a culture that values perfectionism. As children, we were told that “practice makes perfect.” We learned that making mistakes was bad, that we need to always “color inside the lines.” We learned that to succeed we needed to “strive for perfection.”
Perfectionism is one of the biggest deterrents of learning from mistakes. People become so fixated on not failing that they never move forward. They focus on the upside risk associated with failing, rather than the downside risk of not trying at all.
Losing Balance Between the “What” and the “How”
To advance our careers, we are encouraged to build social capital, to gain respect and to create an image of professionalism. Managing the ways others view us becomes larger than reality. The result: we become overly concerned with achieving the goal rather than considering the process—and the goal is to succeed. Rather than focusing only on the what, great leaders also focus on the how. The what is management, and the how is leadership. Attending to how goals are achieved, rather than the goals themselves, builds strong relationships and solid business acumen.
Unfortunately, most of us focus on the goal rather than the process. If aspiring leaders are too driven to succeed, they may lose sight of what is most important. They become so enamored with success that they avoid failure. What was once considered a strength eventually becomes a detriment. The more success they achieve, the more failure becomes unthinkable—and the downward spiral begins. This same drive that may have given them successes in the past may limit them in the future. Winning feeds their egos, and the more they win, the bigger their egos get. Eventually, it becomes a game of winning at all costs—hiding mistakes, blaming subordinates and even misrepresenting facts. Simply put, failure is not an option.
The Failure Paradox and Its Irony
The truth is, every great leader makes mistakes. Unfortunately, there are only a limited number of mistakes you can make before proving yourself an unworthy leader—you can only fall off the corporate ladder so many times before your climb is finished. And the higher you get, the more severe the fall. The failure paradox is that in order to succeed, we need to know failure.
And here is the irony. There are critically important lessons to be learned from failures. What makes effective leaders is their ability to learn from mistakes—their own mistakes as well as others’. Yet the irony is that we can’t afford to make mistakes to gain the critical insights into effective leadership.
But what if there was a shortcut—the opportunity to learn from seasoned leaders who already understand how to grow from challenges? Armed with these examples, you can learn from others’ mistakes before you are confronted with similar challenges yourself. More importantly, you can begin to develop a work philosophy that tolerates mistakes and learns from failure. iBi
Dr. Weinzimmer is a professor of strategic management in the Foster College of Business Administration at Bradley University. An author, consultant and award-winning researcher, Weinzimmer is internationally recognized for his expertise in strategic planning.
Dr. Weinzimmer is currently writing a book with Jim McConoughey, CEO of The Heartland Partnership, to be released in the fall of 2012. It will provide the most comprehensive, in-depth discussion of leadership to date, based on a seven-year heuristic study that interviewed thousands of executives and has been verified by some of industry’s most well-known leaders. In this book, we will talk frankly and instructively about the things that are hard to talk about—critical lessons learned from mistakes.