On Leading and Failing

This month’s letter from the editor.

It may seem odd to feature two major stories on failure in a leadership issue. But the very essence of leadership is dealing with our failings and fumbles in pursuit of our ideals. So it is that we offer up a compelling narrative of a unique leader who falls from power, moves through the difficult stages of grief, and learns how to make sense of it all. And we also have a surprising story on how automaker Chrysler, which has always been at its best when its back was to the wall, is taking the lessons of disaster and making them company policy.


Truth is, how we survive our disappointments and failures is every bit as important as how we succeed. What happened to David Pottruck, the former CEO of Charles Schwab, is an extreme version of what it is like to experience and overcome a career disaster. His ouster as top dog of one of the world’s major financial-services companies was as public and humbling a downfall as one could imagine. So too with Chrysler, which has survived enough near-death experiences to fill a soap opera. When Dieter Zetsche became CEO five years ago, his top executives told him that the way to put the company on solid footing was to harness the qualities that emerged in crisis. And that is exactly what he has done.

I’ve long believed that the best leaders in history study their defeats for the lessons they offer. They never dwell on disappointment. They never lose confidence. They are always willing to take risks. They give hope. Anything less can siphon the optimism and the energy necessary to see and shape a new future — for it is tough-minded optimism that allows the best leaders to unleash the wonderful possibilities of the human spirit.

In this issue, you’ll find multiple perspectives on what it takes to lead a group of people, an organization, and in Pottruck’s case, even yourself. We kick off the Next section with an insightful essay that speaks to the most important attributes for any leader today. In Fast Talk, we introduce you to five exceptional leaders who reflect on how to lead in times of uncertainty — those moments when you need to urge people forward even as their future is in doubt. In our Playbook section, we provide counsel on taking over the reins from a beloved boss.

Elsewhere, we serve up new thinking on what you can learn from the best business leaders of the 20th century. And as Fast Company did last year, when we devoted our leadership issue to the topic of courage, we celebrate the leaders who displayed courage in the face of a challenge — and we expose those who simply lacked the resolve to make the right decision. All in all, this issue is a thoughtful and sophisticated treatment of a topic that has been at the center of our mission since the magazine began 10 years ago.

In this space, I’ve often quoted the words of the late John W. Gardner, who has written as elegantly as anyone on the subject of leadership. His thoughts have informed and inspired my own often-difficult journey of leading a team of highly talented, creative people. Wrote Gardner: “We need to believe in ourselves and our future but not to believe that life is easy. Life is painful and rain falls on the just. Leaders must help us see failure and frustration not as reason to doubt ourselves but as reason to strengthen resolve. . . . Don’t pray for the day when we finally solve our problems. Pray that we have the freedom to continue working on the problems the future will never cease to throw at us.”

For Pottruck, for Chrysler, for you, and for me, I pray that we always have problems to seek and solve. And I hope we grapple with those problems with compassion, dignity, and integrity. That too is leadership.