Make Failure Your Greatest Asset

The You: Reinvented series is meant to bring you successfully through the intersection of personally development and leadership success.

I have a friend – we’ll call her Jen – who’s on a fast-track to a highly successful career. She’s smart, hard-working, and quite talented at finding new ways to delight her clients. She is also a great team player: she shares her most effective new practices with her more-experienced teammates, and she’s terrific at motivating them to stretch to keep up with her. She’s only been out of school a couple of years, but she has all the signs of being a highly successful leader within her company (or another company, for that matter).

All the signs but one. To my knowledge, she has never failed at anything.

Jen isn’t ready to lead yet. Terrific as she is, her lack of failure to date has denied her one of the most important traits a leader needs to be successful: empathy. I should know. I suffered from a similar deficiency a few years back, and now that I’ve stumbled and fallen a time or two, I’m a much more effective leader for the experience.

Although it seemed to take a painfully long time to me in the moment, Coiné Language School was an overnight success. Basically, after years of teaching, I put on my entrepreneur’s hat and struck a home run my first time at bat. Sales came easily to me because I was selling something I loved and truly believed in. Delighting our clients came easily to me (which brought us a lot more sales!). Hiring and keeping the best teachers in Greater Boston came easily to me (which made new and repeat sales ever-easier).

Despite my best intentions at modesty, I couldn’t help but look at our success and think to myself, “Man, business is easy! Why do others struggle with it?”

Ouch. That’s a really, really huge psychic flaw to overcome.

There are innumerable reasons that people struggle with success, be it on the organizational level or in their own careers. In order to succeed long-term, you have to fall down and scrape your knees – it isn’t just a good idea; you have to!

  • Jack Welch knows this. The celebrated former Chairman of GE blew up a factory early on in his career. A factory. The lessons he learned from that were key to his eventual success.
  • Steve Jobs was fired from his own company! That’s right, Apple’s board sacked him from the firm he started in his own garage. He wandered around the career wilderness for several years, and when he returned… well, I think we all know that story.
  • Winston Churchill is probably the most famous example of early failure and ultimate success in the annals of history. Young and cocky, his plan to end World War I early with the invasion of Gallipoli failed miserably when his own admiral contravened orders, exposing the British army to slaughter. Churchill had to wait two decades for his chance to lead his nation. When he finally did, he was arguably the savior of the free world.

My own failure was much less dramatic than any of those. Flush with my success from our language school, convinced I had the touch regardless of the endeavor, I tried my hand at the nonprofit realm. Did we help people who needed it? Certainly, and some quite profoundly. Do I consider those two years a success? Hell no. I returned to the world of profit because I had to admit, that’s what I understand, what I’m good at. It hurts just writing about it.

And that’s the thing. That pain doesn’t just drive me to succeed; it also helps me empathize with others who are having trouble in their endeavors, no matter what the field. I get it now. Or at least I get a big part of “it” that I was missing before.

Were Jen to lead right now, she’d be frustrated with her people when they failed to perform. Rather than understand from a gut level a little of what they’re going through, she’d find them lazy, or stupid, and certainly not worth her effort. She wouldn’t have a reservoir of shared experience to draw on in order to help them through their temporary challenges. Sooner or later, this would bite her in the ass.

Have you failed at anything important to you? Chances are, unless you’re really young like Jen, then you have – especially given what the global economy has brought us through in the past few years. In one very important way, you’re lucky.

Embrace your failure. Sure, continue to hate it. But take that bruise on your psyche and allow it to teach you one of the most important lessons any leader must master: empathy.

Photo courtesy of William Warby

Ted Coiné is a Forbes Top 10 Social Media Power Influencer and an Inc. Top 100 Leadership and Management Expert. This stance at the crossroads of social and leadership put him in a unique perspective to identify the demise of Industrial Age management and the birth of the Social Age. The result, after five years of trend watching, interviewing and intensive research, is his latest book, A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive, which he co-authored with Mark Babbitt. An inspirational speaker and popular blogger, Ted is a pioneer of the Human Side of Business (#humanbiz) movement. He is also a serial business founder and three-time CEO. When not speaking at conferences and corporate functions, Ted advises CEOs on how to become Truly Social Leaders, or “Blue Unicorns” as they put it in A World Gone Social, in order to bring their companies into the Social Age. Ted’s advice: “Change is only scary if it’s happening to you. Instead, bring the change your competitors dread. That is something only a Social Age business leader can accomplish.”

  • Ted, Thank you for a very worthwhile article. In the midst the pain of “failure” it is hard to see possible benefits. Julio Olalla said, “Our wounds are our assets.” Not only do wounds provide a greater understanding and empathy, they can help one develop resilience and coping skills that are not available if the only experience has been success. I believe this occurs not only in work but in personal situations. Maybe if we use a word other than failure we can see setbacks in a different way. Maybe if we are not so quick to decide something is a failure, we can help to turn things around earlier.

  • I agree, “The more we fall and learn, the stronger (and wiser) we are going forward.”

    Many thanks for this very useful article.

  • Great piece, Ted! I was “Jen” when I started my first company at the ripe old age of 19… While I was great at what I did, it came easily to me, and I couldn’t understand what the big deal was. Thankfully, the years have matured me. Failures have humbled me. And I’m a better leader for it!

  • Ted,

    Great do hear from you again! I am kind of upset by your post…mainly because I am very similar to Jenn. I have never fallen and I feel the pride and invincibility she feels. From where I stand, there is no failure. It isn’t an option.

    Now, that in mind, I am curious. For someone like me (or Jenn) would you suggest we intentionally ignore an important project to fail? Or are you saying we simply don’t have enough life experience to lead appropriately because we have not yet experienced trying as hard as we can and not succeeding?

    Please advise. I am already started down a career path in nonprofit project management and independent consulting at the end of my first degree in college. As an independent leader who will likely not have a staff to manage (besides myself) do you think I may not need the same qualifications? Or do you think I will become a stronger and better leader at the point that I experience those things?

  • From an educator perspective, the stories we tell about our own failures become inspiration to students who feel a need to be perfect. Failures make us human – and empathetic.

    Janet |

  • Ilene Fischer

    Ted Thank you for this great article.
    I believe that experiencing failure allow you to define you passion in life it helps to sculpt your life’s path. Every time I have failed and I have experienced many failures; it pointed to areas of mis-alignement for my life’s purpose and for my passion. Failure is the universe’s way to teach you what you need to know to truly be successful in express the difference you are out to make in the world.

  • Beth M . Wood

    Great message Ted. And certainly true that most of us who’ve survived (barely) through the last several years’ economy can relate! As a writer, I have chalked up an entire file folder of rejection letters. Every “no thank you” is proof that I am sweating, working, not giving up. It has made every “yes” that much sweeter – and continues to do so!

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