How to Turn Past Failure into Future Success

Posted: 7/6/2011

Most of us can remember a time from our childhoods when we failed. Maybe we did poorly on an important test, forgot our lines in the school play, or cost our team the championship game. At the time, those failures felt devastating, and in some ways they were. However, some of us learned early on that failure is essential to winning.

This idea may seem counter intuitive, but it does make sense. Since failure is unavoidable, we must develop the fortitude to learn from it, no matter how difficult that may be. By learning to accept failure, we actually set ourselves up to win.

As adults we often forget this simple yet powerful lesson. That's because in the business world, we are trained to despise failure, and for good reason. It can cost you dearly. Yet the ability to accept that you have failed, learn from the experience, and "bounce back" to a position of strength is a hallmark of great leaders and is essential to turning a failure into a success.

Accept responsibility

The first step to bouncing back is to accept and assume responsibility for the failure. You have to admit there was an error or a failure in order to learn from it. Your role in that failure has to be openly acknowledged. Why? Because if you do not, people will assume you are refusing to accept accountability and have elected not to learn from the mistake. By admitting your role in a failure, you show your humanity, your humility, and your openness to learning.

When my children were little, they went through a phase of instinctively grabbing any excuse-no matter how ludicrous-to divert the blame from themselves. They have since grown out of that, and they now know that trying to dodge responsibility for a mistake ultimately can have worse consequences than the mistake itself. Yet we all know some adults who still do this. Every error produces an excuse; every failure has a different scapegoat. They probably don't realize it, but they are paying a much higher price than if they owned up to their shortcomings. What they are losing is the trust of their associates and of their company's management. No one wants to work with an excuse-maker for fear of becoming that person's next scapegoat.

It takes a bigger person to own up to mistakes. It takes a person with a strong sense of right and wrong, of fairness. These are traits that people admire and look for in leaders.

Learn from your mistakes

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." We all know that age-old axiom. But simply trying the same thing again will usually produce the same result-failure. The sting of failure motivates great leaders to avoid making the same mistake going forward. It may seem compulsive to some, but success depends on analyzing past failure down to its smallest components and gleaning kernels of insight from each dissected piece. Good leaders use these insights to do things differently the next time.

Sometimes after a failure you don't get a second chance. There is no opportunity to "try, try again." In these situations, "bouncing back" may not involve applying what you learned to the same situation. Instead you need to translate the lessons learned for use in other areas of your career or personal life. No lesson learned should ever be wasted.

Let's say you have a job interview. Throughout the interview you provide detailed answers to questions about yourself: your experience, your goals, and your background. When it comes time to ask the interviewer questions regarding the company and the position, you are unprepared. As a result, the job goes to someone else. You know before you even leave the interview that you made a mistake. You cannot ask for a "do-over," as my children would say. What you can do is apply the lesson you learned and never show up at an interview unprepared again.

Continue to be a leader

Sometimes you do get a second chance to succeed. In fact, the same situation may crop up again and again, as happened in the 1993 Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character has to relive the same day over and over again until he "gets it right." (Unlike Murray in Groundhog Day, you should not take 100 iterations to get it right!) In repetitive situations, it is very important to accept responsibility for the mistake openly and quickly. Doing so allows the affected parties to know that things will be different next time.

For example, let's say you issue a monthly report for use by other departments. Last month, you opted not to have your team review the report in advance. Consequently, inaccurate information slipped by and resulted in bad decisions made by other departments. What should you do? In another month, you will be issuing another report. Will the other departments ignore it in favor of getting their own information for decision making? After the adrenalin rush of embarrassment passes, you need to immediately acknowledge the error to all involved, assume responsibility, and vow to find out what went wrong.

It takes a strong and secure person to admit mistakes. It allows you to lead by example. It tells your people that meeting problems head-on is the only way to deal with them. It shows the people who are relying on you that you fix mistakes, and that they can count on receiving good information from you in the future.

Bouncing back and learning from mistakes is an acquired skill. Most of us aren't born with this ability; we learn from experience. We see firsthand that accepting and learning from mistakes--while initially hard to do--yields lifelong rewards. Great leaders remind themselves of the lessons learned at the knees of their parents, grandparents, teachers, and other influential people in their lives. Most importantly, they remind the people around them of this simple truth: Bouncing back is actually bouncing forward.

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