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Four Ways to Lead Through Failure

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“Failure is NOT an option!”

This unspoken NASA creed was in understood to be in effect during every mission, especially the Apollo 13 Houston-We-Have-a-Problem episode.

While this quote makes a great motivational mantra to build team enthusiasm, it is not reality. In fact, failure is ALWAYS an option. The Apollo 13 astronauts could have easily launched themselves on an endless journey into deep space. Whether internal error or outside occurrences beyond our foresight or control, failure happens. But what are we to do as leaders in the midst of failure?

1. Maintain enthusiasm 

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

A good leader keeps her or his head up during tough times. The leader is called to stand on a parapet and look out towards the horizon, discovering possibilities. Shoegazing at the problem at hand will not inspire confidence, lead the troops, or promote outside-the-box thinking needed to find solutions. When, as a leader, you take this higher view, you can maintain enthusiasm without becoming a false, rah-rah cheerleader, and this you must not become. Your team will disregard inauthentic attempts at motivation. Instead, be honest, stating clearly, “I know things are rough,” or “Okay, we did experience failure on this project.” But quickly let them know that though this battle may be lost, there are more battles coming which are quite winnable.

Churchill, one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, experienced colossal failures in individual battles, yet he kept a can-do attitude. “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” he said, as well as his famed statement on adversity:

“Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

2. Shape the story

Failure is often measured by the numbers–a poor profit statement, an abysmal product launch, or a bad department review. But know this, no data is ever perceived in an entirely objective manner. Everyone sees the data through their own colored lenses and shapes their views of the current situation within the context of their internal narrative. This is always true, no matter how analytical a person appears to be. In bad (and good) situations, as a leader you should never pitch data “neutrally” before your team without context. Recent studies have shown they won’t receive it without bias. Instead, as the leader, you must shape the context by telling the story that surrounds the data. Leaders articulate, “Here is what the data means, and here is our response to this challenge or failure.” To maintain morale, be sure to tell the story of past obstacles that have been overcome through your team’s smart and diligent efforts. Include historical stories of those who faced incredible failure and saw the cards stacked against them, yet they succeeded. (See Abraham Lincoln, Apollo 13, and the WWII Allies if you need fodder.)

3. Encourage Failure

Wait, what? Yes, good leaders encourage micro-failures to avoid macro-failures. Applying creative efforts that have a chance of failing to the smaller scope of a problem is crucial to overcoming over-arching failure at the highest levels. Encourage your team to think beyond traditional solutions while providing them safe boundaries to work within. In this way, if things go south, one area of the project is affected by the creative effort’s failure, but, hopefully, cross-infection into other areas of the project can be avoided.

Many businesses have team members who are so afraid of the reaction from on high, they become paralyzed, unable to come to any viable solution when failure or problems occur. Reward your team members for innovative efforts regardless of the outcome. Today’s botched solution may become tomorrow’s genius idea.

Have team members or departments share their failures with other team members without reprisal. Of course, before they share it, you will want to vet their presentation to help them shape the context and narrative. Good leaders are always story-shapers. Having those under your leadership hear others say, “We hit a huge pothole. The wheels came off, and here is how we are putting them back on,” is a way to ensure your team stays nimble in their thinking when failure does occur.

4. Keep a Failure Catalog

Failure is rarely an end in itself. It is simply a means for a great leader to say, “Ouch, let’s learn from that and not allow that to happen again.” Keep a catalog of your failures with the story of how you overcame each of them attached. This record will give you great hope when a new failure or problem arises. You can view a situation that seems insurmountable, and reflect back as you realize many other problems appeared to be the Mount-Everest-of-all-failures in their time. You survived and grew from those failures. You’ll grow from this one, as well.

Remember

Failure IS always an option. In fact, to fail is human, and every leader, at last check, was human. Press forward when failure happens, using your talents and skills to lead through adversity—maintain enthusiasm, tell stories, encourage failure, and keep a catalog. It is this type of leadership that will inspire your team and, should a large enough problem occur, place your name in the history books alongside other great leaders. Remember, failure is merely a means to better the story of future success. 

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