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Failure Is The Only Option, If Success Is The End Goal

If learning happens through trial and error, then you need to try, and more importantly, you need to err.

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; every rose has its thorn. However, in leadership, we often miss out on half the story. Most discussions focus on what leaders "should do" rather than on what they "should avoid." The result? We talk about success, but seldom talk about failure.

In The Wisdom of Failure, we discuss 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 error. Jim Owens, former CEO of Caterpillar Inc., told us we actually learn more from our failures than we do from our success. He states that our most important lessons as leaders come from our toughest losses.

Mistakes are 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 fear to take 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 and 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. However, performance reviews inherently reward us on our short-term success and penalize us for our short-term mistakes. Rarely does someone receive a performance review spanning several years. And personal growth from mistakes is an evolutionary process. It takes time. Mistakes today usually hurt our performance evaluations in the short term. Moreover, in entrepreneurial firms, making leadership mistakes are not only amplified, they can destroy an entire company.

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 business environment? We have created an evaluation platform where successes are celebrated and failures are not. Remember, "failure is not an option."

IDEO founder David Kelley believes failure is not only an option, it is a necessary ingredient for success. Rather than punishing employees for failure, he and his leadership team encourage employees to be comfortable with bad ideas—one of the reasons IDEO is one of our most innovative companies. He believes that without freedom to pursue bad ideas, employees will miss many good ideas.

A Culture Of Perfectionism

We live in a culture that values perfectionism. As children, we were told "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. How did Tom Watson, former CEO of IBM, react when one of his executives made a $10 million mistake? Instead of firing him, he viewed the mistake as an investment in training and development. Why? Watson realized taking healthy risk will often result in failure, and that a culture of perfectionism can be paralyzing to progress.

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 way 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. 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.

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.

Yet we live in an environment where we can't afford to make mistakes. As George Ruebenson, former President of Allstate Protection told us, great leaders have an innate ability to learn by observing key takeaways from others' mistakes. He credits much of his success as a leader to the observations he made of others' mistakes early in his career. Bottom line: Great leaders have the ability to learn the tough lessons—without paying the price.

Larry Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey are coauthors of The Wisdom of Failure: How to Learn the Tough Leadership Lessons Without Paying the Price.

Larry is an endowed professor of management at Bradley University. He is an internationally recognized speaker and advisor to numerous Fortune 100 companies on issues relating to strategy and leadership.

Jim is an experienced CEO, sought-after business development and community leadership expert, and an active fund manager for venture and early-stage capital investments. Jim's particular focus is working with small to mid-size organizations to identify and evaluate strategic growth opportunities.

[Image: Flickr user Rana Ossama]

Add New Comment


  • Michelle M.

    A former CEO gave one of her direct reports an objective - "try 10 new things this year - I expect 9 of them to fail". What a gift to be urged out onto the limb of innovations...!
    I wish I knew the end of the story: what were the 10 things, how many really did succeed, did the guy keep his job... But it's nice to imagine your own happy ending isn't it? 

  • Hugh Hopkins

    I'm currently
    setting up a business and admittedly it has been hard work and gaining traction
    is difficult. What I can say is that it has been one of the most intensive
    learning experiences.

  • Amber King

    Wonderful article guys. Failures are and will always be part of life. We will come across it every once in a while. The important thing is, we learn something from it. It will surely be a failure if you get out of that experience learning nothing.

  • Stephen

    This article appears to contradict another Fast Company article titled "Stop Learning From Your Failures, It Creates a Culture of Fear" by Noah Robischon published May 4, 2010 at  Squaring the circle might be possible via the suggestion that "failure is forgotten" rather than punished?

  • Ashley Good

    Thanks for the great
    article. I love the link between risk aversion and our ambitions for
    perfection. I'm reminded of an article by Chris Argyris where he states that
    the strongest, smartest, most successful 
    leaders are often the ones who are the worst at recognizing and learning
    from failure.  In his study those leaders
    (who have likely always aimed for perfection) were more likely to respond to
    failure defensively. He offers the explanation that those who rarely experience
    failure haven't learned to deal with it effectively.


    Something that was
    not stated explicitly in the article is how these lessons from failure are
    rarely ever black and white. I would suggest that the examples of complete,
    undisputed failures (and successes) are in the minority and most of our
    experience with failure comes in the form of little day to day incidences where
    differing perspectives, the passage of time, and what criteria is chosen for
    evaluation all compound to add dynamic qualities to how we interpret and label
    what we do as success or failure.


    I'm looking forward
    to the book as it seems the lessons extracted will have benefited from the
    reflections of the leaders who learned them over time thus making the failures
    more understandable and valuable to the readers. And for those of us who are
    going through the experiences of successes and failures in real time, I think
    it's important to stay focused on taking these lessons learned in the past to
    find ways to get better at learning in the present. 

  • Nan R

    Great article. Loved it and I agree completely with your point of view. In my own life, a few months ago, there was an episode where I had to make a choice on a decision that would have a huge impact on my life. It was a chance I had to take and I took it, knowing fully well the risks associated with it. A few months later, I was sorry to realize that I had made a bad decision. I failed to go by my gut-instinct and instead chose to over-ride it with various other considerations that deserved much less importance than I gave them. But it's a lesson learnt and I'm wiser for it. Your article validates my own understanding of the importance of failure.