The Beauty of Executive Failure


The Beauty of Executive Failure

From the time we learn to walk and talk, we are told not to fail. As we grow older, the pressure to not fail gets more intense. Whether in college, as part of a sports team or entering the door, so to speak, of our first jobs, “failure is not an option.” I get that. However, what happens when failure is the only option?

For example, there are mediocre professional athletic teams that intentionally lose games to get higher draft picks. There are companies that fail because they realize their technologies cannot compete or are flawed. There are numerous examples of cash-strapped biotech concerns whose products have not cleared FDA approval and the best decision is to shut down.

It is not uncommon given the examples above, that executive leader clients have sat across from my desk at VIM Executive Coaching in Denver, Colorado, and have said “I’ve failed. I have failed myself, my company and every other important person in my life.”

Heavy Burdens

The mantle of failure is a heavy burden. We may disappoint many people if we fail, but generally speaking the greatest pain is the pain that we absorb. We often react to failure by taking out the blame on ourselves. It is understandable, of course, but it can often be unfair.

Using the examples above, is the general manager of a football team totally to blame when the coach is not doing the job for which he was hired, or when several key players suffer career end injuries? If a new, breakthrough software technology appears that makes a company’s products virtually redundant, is the director of marketing a failure when sales virtually disappear? Should the CFO of a biotech company go into a deep depression when she realizes that the technology, they have backed for years failed to clear an important trial? I think not.

We are free to take some burdens on ourselves when there might have been widespread drug abuse on a team or sexual harassment that was never addressed, or fraudulent behavior in marketing software or faked research results, but the heavy burden of failure most executive leaders take upon themselves is often unfair.

Why we view failure as “unfair”

The burden of failure is often viewed as being wholly unfair. “Why did we fail?” or “Why did we have to let so many down?” are questions borne of a reaction to a less than expected outcome rather than a logical response.

Believe it or not, there can be a certain beauty in failing. For one thing, to admit failure is to lose a great deal of ego. It is a submission to the Universe that we are not perfect, not all knowing, not capable of seeing into the future with amazingly clear vision.

There is an “if” in all of this, of course. “IF” we have done our diligence, research, and thorough testing (or whatever the parameters) and we looked at as many contingencies and scenarios as we could and something went awry, just how much more additional blame can we heap upon ourselves?

Using the football team scenario, while a general manager might disappoint thousands of die-hard fans with a lackluster year, we must realize that they pay only for tickets or for team jerseys and hot dogs. They go home after they game and back to their lives. While everyone wants a championship, we understand the day-to-day challenges and problems. We did our very best to field a good team.

Investors in a publicly-traded biotech firm know (or should know) the risks involved in bringing a new drug to market. Because the early trials looked promising might be cause for speculation, later trials with even greater scrutiny can, and do fail. If the executive did all she could have done to create realistic expectations and to conduct the most thorough research possible, what more could she have done?

Executive leaders coming into business coaching talk about their failure as being unfair, but was it? If we are authentic as leaders, we must expect that not everything always works out for the best, whether a new employee or a new technology. When the dust settles there can be great beauty in learning from failure providing, we favorably respond to the situation no matter the outcome. Whether spilt milk, or a failed technology, if we appropriately respond to what has occurred, we can move on and acquire more knowledge and wisdom. There is great beauty in that.

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Leadership, MindfulnessBruce Wolk