Most of us can remember a time from our childhoods when we failed. Maybe we lost in the final round of the spelling bee, 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, most of us learned early on that failure is essential to winning.
As adults, we often forget this simple yet powerful lesson. In the business world, we are trained to despise failure, and for good reason. It can cost you dearly. However, since failure is unavoidable, we must develop the fortitude to learn from it, even if it turns our stomach. Like many things in life, this idea is counter intuitive. By learning to accept failure, we actually set ourselves up to win.
The ability to fail, feel the sting, learn from the experience and bounce back is a hallmark of great leaders. Each of these steps is important to turning a failure into a success.
The first step to bouncing back is to accept and assume responsibility for the failure. You have to admit there was a miss, an error, a failure in order to learn from it. Your role in that failure has to be openly acknowledged. Why? Because without it people will assume you are refusing to accept accountability and have elected not to learn from the miss. 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 them. They have since grown out of it, knowing that compounding the error with a “dodge” ultimately has worse consequences. Yet, we all know some adults who still do this. Every error has 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, team and management. No one wants work with them for fear their misguided finger of blame will point to them. It takes a bigger person to owe up to mistakes. It takes a person with a strong sense of right and wrong, of fairness. These are traits that people admire and that they look for in leaders.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. We all know that age-old axiom. But just doing the “try, try again” thing will usually produce the same result—failure. Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. The sting of failure motivates great leaders to avoid the same failure going forward. It may seem compulsive to some, but to succeed depends on analyzing the past failure down to its smallest components, gleaning kernels of insight from each dissected piece. They use these insights to do it differently the next time.
Sometimes, you don’t get another bite at the apple. If you blow an opportunity, you don’t get a “mulligan”. There is no chance to “try, try again”. By bouncing back, you may not be bouncing back into the same situation. You need to translate the lessons learned for use in other areas of your career – and your personal life. No lesson learned is ever wasted.
Let’s say you have a job interview. You go through the whole interview with detailed answers to questions about yourself: your experience, your goals, and your background. When it comes time to turn the tables and ask the interviewer questions regarding the company and the position, you are unprepared. The result: the job goes to someone else. You know before you even leave the interview that you blew it. You came prepared for only half the task. You cannot ask for a “do-over”, as my children would say. What you can do is apply the lesson learned and never show up at an interview unprepared again.
Sometimes you do get another bite at the apple. In fact, sometimes the same situation crops up again and again like “Groundhog Day”. Unlike “Groundhog Day”, you should not take a hundred iterations to get it right. In repetitive situations, it is very important to accept responsibility for the mistake openly and quickly. Doing this 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 a review of the report with your team in advance. Consequently, the bad 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 relying on your reports that you fix mistakes and they can count on good information in the future. The buck stops with you.
Bouncing back and learning from mistakes is an acquired skill. Most of us aren’t born with this ability; we learn from our experience. We see firsthand that accepting and learning from mistakes, while initially hard, yields life-long 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 important, they remind their people of this simple truth: bouncing back is actually bouncing forward.