Leaders Know How To Fail

Gerwig 2015-12-04

Have you ever failed at anything? Of course you have. No one is perfect. Maybe you flunked a chemistry exam in high school. Or perhaps you baked a cake that didn’t turn out well. Or maybe you assembled a shelving unit from Ikea only to realize you installed one of the shelves upside down. Or it’s possible that you didn’t pass the test for your driver’s license the first time. Have you ever gone to the store and brought home the wrong size bolt or plumbing hardware? Have you ever been “cut” from a basketball team or dance troupe?

Face it, we’ve all failed. Some failures are larger than others. Some failures hurt only our pride while other failures can physically hurt other people (as in a bridge-design failure). But all of us fail. The good news is that you can choose to learn from your failures. In fact, great leaders know how to fail. They try things. They experiment. They initiate. They have a bias for action. They lean forward in the fox hole. And, on occasion, they fail.

Great leaders know that they could play it safe in an effort to avoid failure. But what great leader is satisfied with “inaction”? And “not” taking action could be a failure in itself, an opportunity cost if you will. There are failures of omission as well as commission. Great leaders know how to fail. They take action and learn from those actions. Sometimes they build upon their success. Other times they build upon their failure. In each case, great leaders take action and build upon the result, whether positive or negative.

I’ve failed at many things in my life but one brief story I’ll share centers around radios. I was managing a couple sites that were separated by a few miles. Communication between the two was difficult. Cell phones didn’t work in the buildings due to thick concrete walls and, unless someone was sitting at their desk, it was difficult to connect. Often, I found myself driving 5 minutes to have a quick conversation with someone. In total, it would take 25-30 by the time I left one site, drove to the other, had a brief conversation and returned. Talk about inefficient!

While waiting for a somewhat complicated “repeater” system to be installed at the two sites, I decided to take action. I went to a local big box retailer and purchased radios that had a range of 35 miles. I brought them to my office and immediately charged ‘em up. The next day, we tested them. Fail. The large print on the packaging said the radios had a range of 35 miles. The small print on the back said that in an urban area the range might be .5 miles or even less. Although the two sites were only a few miles apart, the “35 mile” radios I’d purchased failed to solve my communication problem.

What did I learn? Obviously, read the fine print. But most importantly I learned (or better, I reinforced an existing learning) that leaders know how to fail. I’d seen a problem. I’d taken action. And it hadn’t worked as planned. Big deal. It’s better to have a bias for action and a willingness to try something than sitting around waiting for a solution to fall out of the sky. Right?

Have you failed at something recently? What did you learn?

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.


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