Success is a lousy teacher – Bill Gates

A few weeks ago, when summer was wrapping up and many of us were managing the insanity of wrangling kids back to school and re-prioritizing busy work schedules, I lost track of my eating and exercise routine.

I am not somebody who loves to eat kale, nor do I love to spend my time at the gym. So those choices for me must be deliberate. And they are, most of the time. But I got distracted by competing priorities and convinced myself that I didn’t have to go back to the gym.

I fooled myself into thinking that I could get the healthy, strong body I want by continuing to eat junk and sit on my couch. I downplayed and ignored my current reality. I didn’t want to fail at the gym, so I just pretended that not going to the gym was fine. I didn’t want to show up and notice how hard it was to do something that was so easy for me a month before.

Why should I put myself through that discomfort?

But I wasn’t clearly looking at the options. Which were: I could go to the gym and feel better or I could sit around on the couch and feel bad. And that is at the center of our innate discomfort with failure. We don’t clearly evaluate our options.

Evaluating Options

As leaders we’re often stuck in this imaginary place of thinking “if I don’t do something big and different than something big and different will just happen to us as an organization.” Success will just sort itself out. In my experience this almost never happens.

But when we can accurately acknowledge our options and the outcomes we are looking for, we worry less about failure. This clear evaluation helps to draft courage.

The danger of failure is largely in our minds. Often, we do not accurately understand where we really are. We don’t realize that doing nothing, or doing some small incremental thing, will lead to a failure to make progress. Understanding that failure exists in both the choice to stay the same and the choice to do something different helps us embrace courage.

Embracing courage

Courage is simply a willingness and openness to fail. Courage should be encouraged within organizations, because courage breeds innovation and change. Creating an organizational culture that embraces failure requires talking about what you learn from your own failures and what you learn as a business. It means really believing that you’ll be in a better spot if you try something bold, even if you don’t quite succeed.

Corporate America still has very little tolerance for failure, so it’s incumbent on leaders to break out of their comfort zones and face the mistakes that can lead to innovation and stronger, more engaged teams. It’s up to leadership to understand the difficulty of the dive they’re asking for, then to dive right in.

The reality is that the vast majority of successful entrepreneurs have, at one point or another, failed at some kind of business challenge. And failure has become a pursuit worthy in and of itself.

Five Gifts of Failures

Not only is it ok to fail, failure brings its own unique gifts. Every time you fail, you get five of them:

  • Finding Secret Strength – Brene Brown reminds us when you’re face down in the arena,and you stand back up, you find out what you’re really made of. We look back on things that we didn’t think we could do, and realize we’re stronger than we thought; Facing challenges and enduring a loss compels us to gather up resources and develop skills beyond our arsenals.
  • Gaining Appreciation – Failure can broaden your perspective. With failure, things that once seemed really important might not anymore. You may value where you are in a way that’s different and appreciate your success. That tiny fish you caught after a rough day out at sea start to look pretty great.
  • Forming Deeper Relationships – Failure creates a sense of community and connection. It shouldn’t take a natural disaster for communities to pull together. Don’t miss the opportunity to connect. As leaders, this openness and vulnerability allows people to really connect with you and builds a culture of trust.
  • Connecting to Purpose – If you’re going to fail and keep going, you have to be really sure it matters. Failure helps us consider why we are so doggedly pursing that goal, and that focused energy drives results.
  • Discovering Possibility – in yourself, your company, the opportunity – when you just can’t go from point a to point b, and instead you have to go over, under or through, you discover all the ways there are to achieve what you want (and things you might not even have known).

The next time you or your organization find yourself in the middle of a spectacular, show-stopping failure, find the courage to stay in that place of learning. The mark of a successful leader lies in their response to situations beyond their control.

Remember your track record of surviving tough days is 100%.

Your failures have made you stronger, smarter and more courageous, and they’ll do the same for your organization.



Danessa Knaupp

Danessa Knaupp

Danessa Knaupp is an Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant and Principal of Avenue 8 Consultants. Her work spans a variety of industries. She has led large Fortune 100 multifunctional teams as well as supported entrepreneurial start-ups. She brings a flexible and creative approach to solving the complex problems that executives face.

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