If You Fear Failure, You've Already Failed

Courage is what makes a leader.

That is the lesson learned from one-on-one discussions I've had over the past year or so with some of the best known and most admired leaders in the business arena, on the gridiron, or on the battlefield. Although distinctively individual—from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi to billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad—these leaders had a striking similarity. Each possessed courage in the face of both calculated risk and the uncertainty that stems from exogenous events. I call it "no fear of failure."

To have no fear of failure does not imply a cavalier attitude or that someone has been given a pass. In fact, it is just the opposite. No fear of failure connotes the leader's acknowledgement that the proverbial buck stops in the executive suite. Whether a CEO or a general or the coach of a team, a leader is ultimately accountable for what happens on his/her watch. Despite these pressures, leaders do not play it too safe. They know that taking no risk may be the riskiest move of all—that without some degree of risk there can be no innovation, creativity, or competitive drive. After all, no risk, no reward.

Leaders, whom I profiled in my book No Fear of Failure: Real Stories of How Leaders Deal with Risk and Change (Jossey-Bass, May 2011) expressed a courageous attitude in many different and revealing ways:

•New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken on tough issues such as improving the city's schools and holds himself accountable. "The difference between being pigheaded and the courage of your convictions is only in our results," he said.

•Eli Broad, billionaire philanthropist and founder of KB Home and SunAmerica, emphasizes a winning record, but never let the possibility of failing keep him from taking a calculated risk. As he noted, "I've always been a risk taker. But I've always been able to look at the downside and never bet the farm."

•Vicente Fox, former President of Mexico, stood up to the dominant political party in his country to run for office, even though that could have cost his family their livelihood and landholdings. As a leader with both humility and heroic aspirations he observed, "You have to start by leading yourself and then really work on yourself so that you are equipped to start moving ahead and doing things."

•Carlos Slim, the world's richest man and an intrepid investor and entrepreneur, uses his mathematical mind to analyze opportunities to buy during the steep downturns, just as his father before him had done. Slim explained: "I learned from my father that you continue to invest and reinvest in your business—including during crises."

•Liu Chuanzhi, founder of Beijing-based Lenovo Group, faced bureaucracy and competitive challenges to grow his company from 11 people to a global enterprise. "We started the business from nothing. Perhaps, at the beginning, nobody believed that our company could stand for long," he remarked.

Each of these leaders has achieved admirable success, but all of them know that things could go wrong. For Anne Mulcahy, former chairman and CEO of Xerox Corp, the turnaround she orchestrated at the firm was admittedly a long shot that might not have saved the company. Retired Lt. General Franklin "Buster" Hagenbeck successfully led troops to victory over foreign al-Qaida forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in early 2002, but he was constantly aware of the loss of life.

As these examples show having no fear of failure emboldens leaders to take risks for the right reasons, while always reminding them that victory is never assured. Every game, every skirmish, every foray in business carries the possibility of setback or defeat. The leader who ignores that possibility is quickly blindsided by hubris. Consider the statistic that the average tenure of a CEO of an S&P 500 company is five years.

With no fear of failure, leaders can look themselves in the mirror and know they have analyzed the risks, assessed the opportunities, and moved courageously forward. To do otherwise is to fail in a leader's ultimate responsibility—to stakeholders, fans in the stands, and troops in the field. As the steward who is in charge for a finite time, a leader is obligated to take whatever he or she inherited to the next level and to turn it over in better shape to his or her successor.

Embracing that sobering truth and still moving forward is the essence of having no fear of failure.

Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn/Ferry International, the world’s largest executive recruiting firm and a leading global provider of talent management solutions. He is the author of the bestseller, No Fear of Failure: Real Stories of How Leaders Deal with Risk and Change, published by Jossey-Bass in May 2011.

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