Failing Your Way To The Top

Pepper de Callier

“In my opinion, as the leaders of tomorrow, you are not discussing, or being taught about, one of the most important elements in the making of a true leader—personal failure.” I made that comment recently in an address to a global gathering of MBA students here in Prague. Having spent my career studying and evaluating leaders and leaders-to-be I am still amazed at the lack of understanding that exists about the crucial role failure plays in the creation of a seasoned leader.

For too long, and for a variety of reasons, we have looked at failure and setbacks as trap-doors in someone’s career that caused them to literally disappear—in their eyes or the eyes of others—from serious consideration for advancement. As you read this, I realize that there are extreme examples of failing that will pop into your mind that you feel should be a trap-doors, but, for the moment, treat them as just that—extreme examples. I’m not talking about the missteps that end up on the front page of the newspaper or on the evening news broadcast. I’m talking about the missteps that create that knot in your stomach soon after they occur, or worse, while they are occurring—things like that presentation to the Board of Directors that fell flat, a product launch that became an example of how not to launch a product, a relationship with a colleague that you handled poorly, a project that crashed and burned under your leadership, or a decision that you made that was so bad it became a legend in your company.

All of these have a few things in common: they were important, they were very visible, the spotlight was on you, people were counting on you, and you blew it. Now, normal reactions to events like these are to: a) wish you could become invisible, b) start sending your resume out before everyone knows what happened, c) become very submissive and accept your role as an inferior person, or d) become very defensive which will only prove the fact that you are indeed an inferior person. They aren’t the correct reactions, though.

In all my years of working with senior executives I have yet to meet a solid, seasoned, and successful leader who has not admitted that he or she learned valuable lessons from personal failures or setbacks that allowed them to grow into a more confident and competent leader.

Here’s how they did it. They realized that what they did that qualified as a setback or failure is often not nearly as important as what they could learn from it. The experience became informational as opposed to demoralizing. They accepted ownership of the failure and were able to demonstrate what they learned from it and how they would use that knowledge to create a better outcome in the future.

In doing so, they demonstrated honesty, objectivity, maturity, willingness to learn, and one of the most important traits of any successful leader: resilience. Resilience is what allows some people to rebound from a defeat and keep going while others throw in the towel and walk away. In a challenging environment two things are certain: mistakes will be made and opportunities will be created for those who learn from those mistakes and keep moving forward. So, who would you rather work for, someone who has accepted many challenges, experienced defeat along the way and used that defeat to become smarter, wiser, and more confident, or someone who hasn’t made a mistake yet? Think about this the next time you get that knot in your stomach and then seize the opportunity to grow.