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SupaThink on Comfort with Failure

During one of my first jobs, very early in my life, I got fired. I still remember how it hit me out of the blue – it was completely unexpected. It seemed like my entire world came collapsing down. After the initial shock and having to deal with the logistics of getting home, I vividly remember sitting in the plane and having this tremendous feeling of disappointment; a nagging sense that I failed; and that I was the victim and that the whole world was against me and out to get me. I felt tremendously sorry for myself. I remember venting to a friend about my situation and he had a simple advice for me: "Focus on what you can control and stop worrying about what you can't!"

He simply encouraged me to think about what I can change, what I can address and what I can learn from this event – he pushed me away from victimhood to being in control. Over my career, I have tried to follow this advice and certainly have encountered many situations which challenged me to do so. As I was thinking about this experience, I started to think about how this relates to comfort with failure and how as leaders we can encourage our teams to get more comfortable with failure. Great leaders do this by focusing on several areas:

  • They foster resilience. These leaders create a resilient environment by encouraging their teams to continuously improve and get better. The other great tennis player from Switzerland Stan Wawrinka has a tattoo on his left arm quoting the Irish poet Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." These leaders instill confidence in their teams by their continuous encouragement to try again, to get better, to improve and to give it another shot. This creates resilience and an environment where failure is seen as a logical step in getting better. These leaders don't blame others for failures; they make it clear that mistakes don’t define them but how they learn from them does.

  • They encourage exploration. Back in 2002 the Harvard Business Review published the article "The Failure-Tolerant Leader" which points out that these types of leaders "send clear messages to their organizations that constructive mistakes are not only acceptable but worthwhile. Employees feel that they have been given the green light to set out and explore, no longer thinking in terms of success or failure but instead in terms of learning and experience". I think that this can be very difficult to do but is extremely important in a fast-paced, complex and constantly changing environment. As leaders we have the responsibility to create a context for our teams to explore and learn – this will not only drive innovation but increase engagement and inclusion.

  • They nurture ambition: Great leaders encourage their teams to be extremely ambitious – they want them to reach for the stars. But, they are also keenly aware that the level of ambition and "how much you put yourself out there" directly correlates with an increase in failure and set-backs. The more you push yourself out of your comfort zone, the more you apply yourself to different challenges; the more likely it is that you will not succeed. Great leaders nurture their teams to be comfortable with this reality and encourage them to try anyway and to continue to challenge themselves.

We all are confronted with making mistakes and experience unexpected challenges, but how we deal with set-backs and failures constructively and how we focus on what we can control and do going forward, makes all the difference in the world. I have also learned it is important to have someone in your life that has your proverbial back – a friend, a spouse, a partner, a colleague – can make all the difference on how you refocus about what is in your control and what you do next. Quoting Winston Churchill: "Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm"

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