Failure Is Never A Failure

Dec. 21, 2004
. . . if you learn something from it.

When someone asks me for a definition of "management," I answer: "Management is an activity practiced by three types of ordinary people: (1) those who have not yet succeeded; (2) those who have been unsuccessful; and (3) those who have not yet failed. All the best executives I know have failures in their experience record. It's one of the best ways to learn how to succeed. Let me give you an example. Can you identify this chief executive? He lost his first job, then ran for his state's legislature and was defeated. The following year, he started a business and it failed. Two years later he lost his true love, who died of a sudden illness. The following year he had a nervous breakdown. Five years later he was defeated in his bid to become Speaker of the House of Representatives. After another five years he was again defeated when he ran for the House of Representatives. The following year he was summarily rejected for an appointment as Land Officer. Five years later he ran for the Senate and was defeated. Two years after that he lost the nomination for Vice President. And two years later he was defeated in his second bid for the Senate. This remarkable record of failure belongs to one of America's most honored and revered leaders. He was resolute. He learned from his failures and never lost faith that one day his chance would come. When it finally did, after 24 years of unusual , heart-rending, and repeated failure, he was ready. He succeeded in achieving his rightful place among the greatest leaders in American history. Some consider him our greatest president. Who was he? Abraham Lincoln. As Lincoln proved so conclusively, good management is not a bright tool kit of foolproof gadgets and instruction manuals acquired at some graduate school of management. Good executive management is the result of lessons learned from experience, from successes and failures. Some are learned from mentors, some from observation or interaction with other executives, and some from reading, studying, and experimenting. But most of the best management experience comes from personal experience. . . on the factory floor . . . in the corporate offices . . . out front with your customers. . . across the negotiating table . . . in the offices of your suppliers . . . in the trenches, face-to-face with your competitors . . . from your industry and association activities . . . from your community leaders . . . and in the quiet moments you devote to thinking, planning, and dreaming. People who fear making mistakes never make successful executives. People who are frightened by failure are also afraid to take risks. But, even sadder, they rarely allow their subordinates to take risks, either. Those types of people are not suited to be chief executives. Much of what I know about management--or think I know--is the result of making mistakes. But I've been lucky. I've worked for people who allowed me to try new things, even when they thought that what I wanted to do wouldn't work. I'll admit, often it didn't. But bloodying my own skull instead of merely looking at someone else's bandaged noggin made the lessons I learned easier for me to remember. As a result, I've also learned how difficult it is for any executive to allow his people the freedom to make mistakes as part of their on-the-job training. It's never easy--or comfortable--to watch one of your best managers heading for potential danger. The temptation is to take charge and apply your personal omniscience to the project by telling the poor soul what he or she is doing wrong. Even worse, the temptation to call the whole thing off prematurely is overwhelming. However, personal experience has also taught me that while it is often rewarding to encourage innovation and risk, there is a point beyond which the risks of calamity become too great to continue the project. If the new idea endangers the entire enterprise, the right of the innovator to make a mistake becomes too costly. That's when even the most enlightened risk-taker must make a tough judgment call. On the other hand, chief executives who insist on calling all the plays themselves never develop self-reliant subordinates. Nor do these chief executives spend time training their successors. The trick is to give people the satisfaction and sometimes the pain of seeing their creations succeed or fail without gambling the company's future. This ability--this sixth sense--is the single most defining trait of a chief executive's excellence. When a subordinate does fail, the best chief executives take full, (sometimes shared) responsibility for the failure. This action sends a strong signal to all employees that calculated risk is a natural part of a corporation's growth and development strategy. Without the pressure that comes with risk, a company finds few, if any, diamonds in the rough. Although failure is frequently the end of something, Lincoln's experience proves that often it can be the beginning of something better. If one learns valuable lessons from his or her failures, the experience gained can become the springboard to new and surprisingly lofty success.

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