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Mastering the Art of Failure to Drive Your Success

There is no playbook we can reference to unlock the secrets of an ambiguous and uncertain future. Organizations that will be in the best position to succeed will reframe their relationship with failure.

“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” —Denis Waitley

This is my favorite quote on failure because it acknowledges and recognizes that failure is a necessary part of growth. Unfortunately, in business and in life, we tend to have a dysfunctional relationship with failure. We view it as a permanent, as opposed to temporary, state. However, if we let it, failure can be a wonderful teacher.

When we look at famous quotes by Albert Einstein (“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer”) and Thomas Edison (“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”), you can see that they embraced the insights provided in failure. They weren’t discouraged; they welcomed it as a necessary companion on their road to success.

As leaders, we need to be more accepting of failure—for ourselves and for our teams. It happens to everyone. When pursuing any goal, let alone one that stretches us, we need to recognize we won’t be perfect right from the start. For example, if you’re learning to ice skate, are you going to skate perfectly as soon as you step on the ice? Of course not. There will be many struggles, missteps, and falls. If we think of our next fall as being one step closer to mastery, we are more energized to persevere.

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The world today is full of unknowns. We are embarking on unchartered territory. We are gathering information in real-time. There is no playbook we can reference to unlock the secrets of an ambiguous and uncertain future. Organizations that will be in the best position to succeed will reframe their relationship with failure.

Putting It Into Practice

You may be wondering, “This all sounds great, but how do we put this into practice? How can I change my personal relationship with failure?” I’m glad you asked. The following provides a detailed roadmap we can use to rechart our course.

Step One

As the saying goes, history is great teacher. To start changing your relationship with failure, take a look at your past and see how these events have served you. You will likely be surprised at what you discover.

First, write down an example of a time when you failed to achieve the outcome(s) you desired. Use as high-stakes an example as you feel comfortable.

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Step Two

Next, answer these questions:

  • What did I learn from that experience?
  • To what extent have I already used these lessons to help me succeed since that time?
  • How can I use these lessons more frequently in the future?
  • How can I avoid making the same mistakes again?

Systematically working through this exercise highlights how our past failures contributed to our future successes. Often, these lessons occur outside of our conscious awareness. This exercise helps us see and appreciate those inflection points.

It’s also a great reminder that it’s challenging to learn and grow and that failure is a necessary ingredient for success. To paraphrase a quote from Brené Brown, our failures allow us to benefit from the gifts of our imperfection.

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Application to Leadership

Despite the personal power of this exercise, we can also leverage it as leaders when it comes to coaching our employees. Use it during your 1-on-1s to prompt your employees to reflect on and learn from their own experiences.

You can also utilize this in a team environment. During a meeting, ask people to identify a major setback the team has experienced and draw out the learnings from it. Discuss how the team can prevent it from happening in the future.

The world is getting more and more complex each day. We will encounter situations we have never faced before and will need to pivot rapidly. There is little wonder that top thought leaders believe that resilience, agility, and adaptability are table stakes to survive and thrive in the future.

An important and necessary part of embracing this reality is reassessing our relationship with failure. We must recognize that these setbacks are instrumental learning opportunities.

This doesn’t mean we act recklessly. It means we engage effectively when it happens so we can chart a more successful course for the future.

This article is an edited excerpt from the forthcoming book, A Time to Lead: Mastering Your Self… So You Can Master Your World, which will be released September 13, 2022.

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