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Ph.D., CSP, CDR, US Navy Ret.,
CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame

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The Leadership Lessons From Failures

I get knocked down. But I get up again. You are never gonna keep me down.
– Chumbawamba

Many leaders fail. It is what you do after a failure that matters.

There are many examples of failed leadership, failed projects, and failed organizations. Consider founder and CEO of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes. She was listed as one of Forbes magazine’s richest self-made women in 2014, and by 2016, her net worth crashed from $4.5 billion when the science behind her medical lab testing claims was not as credible as the business world wanted.

Richard S. Fuld, Jr., the former CEO of Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc. Fuld ran this 158-year-old company from 1993 to 2008, when it collapsed under the weight of bad investments. The tsunami of panic it set off through the global financial system triggered the near-collapse of the nation’s financial system and began the Great Recession.

According to Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, as CEO of Lehman, Fuld refused to acknowledge the undercapitalized status of the firm. This refusal to recognize the gravity of the situation turned balance sheet misjudgments into a financial catastrophe.

Not all failures are as dramatic as Fuld’s. All failures do not end in permanent defeat. Many leaders experience setbacks, but the best ones refocus, reengage, and move forward to success:

  • Akio Morita. Sony’s co-founder presented its first product to the market: a rice cooker that burned the rice. Sony went on to become a multi-billion-dollar company.
  • Bill Gates. In the days before Microsoft, Gates began a business called Traf-O-Data, which failed miserably. But he stuck to his vision and passion for computers, which of course, eventually made him one of the wealthiest people in the world.
  • Fred Smith. While a junior at Yale, Fred wrote a paper for an economics class that outlined his idea for a parcel service that guaranteed overnight delivery. The unimpressed professor gave him a C. Fred pursued his dream anyway, and FedEx is the result.
  • Rowland Hussey Macy. Macy opened four retail dry goods stores between 1843 and 1855, all of which failed. He learned from his mistakes before starting his fifth store. Macy’s is still in business today.

It Happens

No one wants to fail, but setbacks do happen. Some people wallow in failure, and they are unable to see past that failure. They cling to the regret that accompanies the failure. Others blame other people for their mistakes.  They are so busy fixing the blame that they don’t fix the actual problem. 

How we respond during difficult times says everything about who we are. Mistakes are about learning. We can benefit from our mistakes by asking questions that help us find the lesson: 

1. How do we maximize the lesson of this failure?
2. Was it a single mistake or a series of mistakes?
3. Were the problems internal or external?
4. What should we have paid attention to that we missed?
5. If we had both 20/20 vision and hindsight, what would we have done differently?
6. Was this a personnel problem?
7. What did I learn that I can apply to the future?

The key to success is to analyze the reasons for failure, find the wisdom, share the lessons, and move on to the next challenge.

Has failure ever taught you a lesson?

1 Comment

  1. Brad Burchnell

    In 1987 I was a young Integration and Test Engineer assigned as a lead on the development project for a new system for a defense contract. I misinterpreted the drawing for a specific machining process that if done incorrectly would ruin the article. I got the call I dreaded – yep I had done the unthinkable and now I had to do a number of things. Answer why I didn’t get guidance from the previous engineer (he was on vacation and was the only one with the full knowledge of the program). Tell the Program Manager, tell my boss and tell the lab manager, write myself up and lastly figure out how to fix it. The machinist and I came up with a plan to machine out the part that was affected. Next was to determine the approach to re-install a replacement part when nothing else could be disassembled. I established the plan, got the blessing from all parties and executed the plan. It succeeded. It was an amazing outcome (lots of sleepless nights) and it was actually something that was a nagging question from the beginning of the program that had not been addressed and unfortunately or fortunately my error created the opportunity to provide a means to address the unanswered question. The bottom line was that learned a great deal on problem solving and decision making and also to stand with integrity as my bosses all asked me why when the Review Board convened why I would risk being potentially fired and place my name as causing the issue in the first place. Because it was the right thing to do and it was not comfortable at all. I learned not to rush to make a decision based on a few facts, but also clarity is a key component and addressing risk based approach to decisions rather than emotion is more valuable. Take the time and to evaluate and determine the optimal course not the expedient course of action. Most importantly experts are invaluable a five minute conversation can save you endless sleepless nights or millions of dollars.


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