“Fail” – On occasion organisations create entire publications about failure, often labeled, “The Failure Issue”. Entire books have been written about failure in which the importance of failure for successful leaders is highlighted. These and other publications with regularity highlight failure and what leaders supposedly are advised to do, start ‘liking to fail’ – The ultimate recipe to innovation, creativity and yes, leadership and business success. In other words sheer happiness for all – Really?
Genealogy type of graphics are shown where the likes of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Bill Gates amongst others, are depicted as successes, as a result of a superb mastery of ‘failing’ – Therefore the message may read: It is wise for a leader to jump on the band wagon and start to ‘get to like to fail’.
When certain people promote, but moreover push on leaders a liking to fail it is like for these to push on people to having a ‘liking for change’. It is certainly not new to most that pushing other people to do things outside of their belief system and therefore their so called comfort zone, may seem nice in theory and principle, but is painful and with the usual lack of perceived influence doomed to fail.
A leader is no exception to the fact that its sub-conscious remains its personal guardian. The guardian will use every possible means to protect the leader and to keeping the leader in for what is personally believed to be its safety zone – Approaching failure and/or pressured change is not believed to be safe. Often times, leaders encouraged to reading about this, may start to rationalise their way through failure and start to institutionalise failure as a strategy. This inevitably results in personal avoidance behaviour of which procrastination and/or blaming others for lack of progress are the best examples. Strategically vindicated, yet tactically the prevention of failure remains predominant, and will certainly not turn into a ‘leadership moment’ where one will come to appreciate failure, or as even some would have you believe, a personal liking for failure.
It may perhaps need no reminder, yet no one naturally likes to change and certainly no one naturally likes to fail – period.
As a practicing international business executive, I can share that I have been in many changing and organisational turnaround situations over the years. Frequently people have come up to me and said “I like (to) change” – mostly these were people who enjoyed creating change in others, and who themselves would resist any hint of (personal) change – hanging onto the old – for good, or for bad. In fact, in those situations where change ultimately turned out to be an organisational failure, it was often communicated as having nothing to do with the leader principally in charge of the change. Hence, the absence of leadership and/or organisational learning.
In my humble view, leaders often confuse the fallacy of ‘liking to fail’ with a leaders’ healthy surrendering to a ‘fear for change’ – the two seem diametrically opposed at the mind level.
Usually introspective, compassionate, emphatic and learning leaders who desire a liking for failure, may learn to dealing with ambiguity as part of managing a fear for change. Personally liking to fail however, is something profoundly different.
Although we all may have experienced some level of “Schadenfreude” at some point in our life – a mischievous delight in the misfortunes and failures of others, this is quite the opposite of developing a liking to fail personally. “Schadenfreude” at the leadership level is most often experienced with peers and other people who are considered a threat, either by their perceived expertise, creativity, or networked ability to get things done – “Schadenfreude” is generally exhibited as a boost to a leader’s low self-esteem. Depending upon a leaders’ maturity, “Schadenfreude” situations may have been rare and transitionary, for others it remains a static state of affairs. Again, as a leader developing a liking to fail seems beyond counter-intuitive and certainly beyond the usual ability to adapt.
A liking to fail is clearly too big a step for most – too much – considered dangerous and usually without learning and positive lasting behavioural results. Personal growth as a leader may come as a result of some failures. However, it surely depends upon the circumstances.
Reading about the so-called successful who supposedly have mastered a liking to fail, reminds me of leaders in companies who parade around and tell others they personally like to change.
Again, it is a much different experience to cause others to change or for that matter, often cause entire organisations to fail. This is quite a contrast to personally being the subject of change, or perceiving that one’s personal leadership failure is a result of other people’s actions.
Failure will likely continue to be considered the opposite of success for most leaders and change without influence, a continuous opposing organisational and personal development barrier.
Therefore, when as a leader you aspire to start communicating about failure, you may want to succinctly address what you like to convey about the situation. The accountability for the failure at the leadership level, its personal and organisational learning, the absence of blame and last but not least how tools, guidance and ongoing dialogue may positively influence future situations, envisioning success – not failure.
In my humble opinion, learning to manage one’s fear for change is a prudent thing to do as a leader. However, developing a liking to fail, based upon the proverbial ‘what you focus on increases’ is very likely not.
Although a healthy leader in a constantly changing business environment requires a great desire for self-knowledge, interest in experiential learning and personal development, statements like the one’s about developing a liking to fail without proper context and guidance are misleading at best.
If communicated in an organisation, the created level of ambiguity camouflaged in this type of failure messages is too strong for these to be accepted by most. What will be remembered however is a mixed leadership message, a perceived absence of authenticity and an even stronger belief that this type of behaviour is ‘reserved’ to a select few – those super masters in the art of failing. Clearly, these are not considered to be the average class of organisational citizen, but ‘the top-sporter type’, those one rarely encounters.
I hope the above leadership reflection may prove valuable to you and to your future work.
This article was originally published in Leadership Matters on 21 March, 2016.