“If you speak like that, maybe some day you can lead of church of 10 or 12 people!”
These words stung badly. The man speaking them to me was a successful minister and an important role model for my own youthful dream of being a minister some day. I had recently worked with him as a platform assistant for the first time on a Sunday morning and, nervous and a little intimidated, I had talked too quietly and timidly. His assessment left me feeling that I had failed miserably, and that instead of seeing my potential, he saw only smallness.
Determined to prove him wrong, in the months that followed I signed up for Toastmasters, and began reading up on presentation skills. I did everything I could to get better. I entered a Toastmasters contest and attended special sessions where my friends coached me. I hired a professional public speaking coach. I worked hard and did many practice speeches. Eventually I went on to win Toastmasters speech contests at the local, area, and district levels.
Years later, I worked my way into the position of senior leader of the same church where my former critic had once served. I have sometimes wondered if, when he made those comments, he was in fact trying to spur me ahead to greater things.
Failure, or the feeling of failure, is one of the most potent experiences in human life. It either motivates us to great heights, or leads us into despair. The April 2011 of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) is devoted entirely to the subject. What I found most inspiring and liberating in its pages are the extraordinary opportunities inherent in failure, and how much freedom we each have in choosing our response to failure. In fact, we can learn much more from failure than from success. What we call failures are the most valuable gifts that leaders can receive–provided we know how to unwrap them.
What makes the difference for the future trajectory of a leader isn’t whether we fail or not (because all leaders experience failure), but how we respond to failure, how we think and act afterwards. Some leaders spiral into a long depression, becoming more cautious and less confident, assuming that the particular failure generalizes to their whole career or life, and taking fewer risks to avoid future failures. They internalize and identify with the failure. But others garner deep learning from their experiences and carry that learning forward into new ventures. They get past the tough emotions and deeply analyze the causes of failure, both those they contributed, and those out of their control. They are realistic about what happened, not overly blaming themselves, nor overly blaming others. And having extracted every last bit of wisdom from the experience, they move back into action, ready to take the next risk.
Here are a few suggestions on how to emerge more successful after an experience of failure:
Do not internalize the experience. This is key. It’s a subtle but dangerous move from “I failed” to “I am a failure.” Be realistic about the scope and boundaries of the failure experience in the context of your life or the life of your organization. Have you ever had a success in the past? Of course, you have had many. And other failures you have recovered from. Don’t let this isolated experience of a failure, even a big one, creep into your sense of of who you are. Who you are is greater than and separate from this one experience.
Look carefully for the learning. Every failure contains the potential for learning, but that learning doesn’t come automatically or easily. The deep value of failure has to be intentionally mined, and to do this we have to go through a conscious process of self-reflection and analysis. We need to take a close, honest look at what happened. Ask yourself:
What can I learn from this experience?
What could I have done better?
What did I actually do well?
What environmental factors did I ignore?
What was realistically out of my control?
How would I do it differently next time?
And this whole analysis should not be shortchanged. I suggest formalizing the process of learning by capturing it in writing, and spending some focused time with it. Go back to it a week or two later when tempers have cooled.
Work through the challenging feelings. To truly benefit from our most difficult experiences, we have to deal with the emotions they generate. Otherwise the feelings of shame, disappointment and anger will cloud our ability to learn and move forward. Processing these feelings with a coach, therapist, trusted friend or colleague can be a great place to start. It doesn’t work to squash tough feelings or pretend they aren’t there–they just come out later. They need to be aired and reconciled so we can move forward.
Change your outlook on what failure is. One of the articles that struck me most in HBR was written by A.G. Lafley, former CEO of P & G and considered one of the most successful CEOs in recent times. The article is titled, “I think of my failures as a gift,” and he really does. I doubt whether Lafley has enjoyed any of his big failures, but the mental framework he has for failure is extremely useful. For him, failure is most fundamentally a potent opportunity to learn. For Lafley, failure is not essentially bad, or permanent, or shameful. He seems to view failure as the most powerful sort of human and organizational development experience. And he is convinced that leaders cannot learn as much from success as they can from failure.
Move into action. After you have done your best to process and learn from the experience, then make a decision to move ahead. While that may be easier said than done, it is ultimately a choice. We have the freedom to choose when we move on from a failure, and this muscle of resilience gets stronger with time and use. In some martial arts, the practitioner is judged in part by their ability to fall well and then get up. In business and in life, we all need to develop this skill.