As you develop, grow, and do your best there will be setbacks. In fact you’re going to run headlong into the path of something most of us will go to great lengths to avoid: failure. The important thing to remember is that leadership success comes from failure. Sometimes many, many failures.
Tragically some of us avoid failure by avoiding those activities in which we aren’t sure we can succeed, but here’s the truth: if you aren’t failing at least occasionally, you aren’t doing anything of long-term value for yourself or others…
Now, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely want to avoid failure in everything I do. I work for success and I expect excellence in others and in myself. So why do I fail? Why will you fail?
Failing means learning something new.
We are most vulnerable to failure when we are trying something new, in other words, when we are learning. The bigger the lesson, the higher the potential benefit, and the more dramatic the failure is likely to be.
An Olympic hopeful learning a new vault is going to have some spectacular failures, and probably more than a few injuries as a result. But when she finally reaches the goal, in this case a new skill, her chances for gold are increased dramatically.
Likewise as you progress through your academic and into your professional career, and even in your personal life, you will be learning big lessons. When you are successful the first time out, you will feel pretty good, but will learn only little that can applied elsewhere. This is because you completed something that you were already equipped to do.
Failure, it might be good for you, but it still sucks.
Failure is still unpleasant, usually for everyone involved, and in some cases is pretty costly.
After any one failure you cannot guarantee, to yourself or to others, that you will make your goal on the next attempt. But what you can, and should, expect is not to repeat the same failure twice. As you are failing in new ways you are still learning. When you start to repeat past failures—failing at the same place in the same way—you’ve stopped learning and you need to step back and figure out why.
As a leader you have another obligation, besides just understanding and acting upon your own failures. You have to allow failure in those around you, and in those on your team. In fact, for long term growth and real innovation, you have to, as a leader, encourage your team to put themselves in situations where failure is an option. And you also have to be prepared for those failures, and know how you are going to react to protect the business when they do happen.
Recognize failure as the currency of success, not as an occasion for recrimination and remorse.
John West is a Senior Fellow in the DoD High Performance Computing Modernization Program, and author of the book The Only Trait of a Leader, a field guide to success for new engineers, scientists, and technologists. John was recently selected by HPCwire as one of "People to Watch" in the supercomputing industry, and is a frequent writer and speaker on leadership issues technology professionals. His blog is Info World.com