Explaining That You Failed

'Explaining That You Failed' by Richard Shrapnel

As a leader, how do you step up and explain the fact that you failed, and still maintain the support and confidence of everyone around you?


Failure is Not Good

‘Failure’ is one of those things that is often spoken about in, what could almost be described as, ‘politically’ correct terms. ‘Failure is a good thing’. ‘Failure is one of those things that you must experience on the road to success’ – and so the list of ‘feel good’ messages continues.

And while there is merit in many of these expressions because you do learn from your failures and in some instances, where a new product or service is being developed, for example, you do need to go through a period of trial and error to create the best solution.

But no one likes to fail or lose, and we all would like to find the perfect solution first time round.  The reality is, however, if you seek to step out and lead your market, it will happen and sometimes we will fail quite badly.

Many business leaders ‘lead on the edge’ not really knowing what they are doing but using their judgement, experience and faith in themselves and their businesses to light the way. There is a nervous energy that keeps them on that edge and pushes them to always step out ahead of everyone else and take their business with them. Such is the nature of great leaders and great businesses.

The greater the risk, it’s likely the greater the fall, if you do not succeed. And for this possibility, you must be prepared. The question remains then, what do you do when you have put all you can into succeeding but you do not?

It’s Not About You

The first and most important aspect of failure as a leader is that it is not about your feelings or your pride. It’s about those around you.

As a leader, you are visible to the entire organisation that you lead and how you respond to failure will set the standard and approach for dealing with such challenges within your business.

If you blame others for the failure, if you pretend it never happened, or try to cover it up, then you have just set the example for everyone else to follow. One of the worst things you could possibly do is seed a culture of denial and hiding failure in your business through your own actions.

The second aspect is the impact that failure has on your business. It’s likely that it’s not only you who has committed their energies, efforts and dreams into winning, and now has to face the loss. Grieving over what has been lost is real but also worrying about the impact on the future viability of the business can create a disempowering uncertainty across the business.

Your team, and depending on the prospective impact of the loss, the entire business may be worried about the loss and what it means for their future.

You can reassure everyone involved in the business that all is going to be ‘fine’. However the reality is that your efforts in securing their commitment and support should have commenced well before the loss that has been suffered was even possible.

It Starts With Your Character

Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her article titled ‘Surprises Are The New Normal; Resilience Is The New Skill’ published in HBR, notes that ‘the difference between winners and losers is how they handle losing’. She believes that troubles and pitfalls are everywhere and inevitable for any leader, and therefore the ‘real skill is the resilience to climb out of the hole and bounce back’.

Kanter goes on to say that the challenge for business leaders is not to learn to fail but to learn to bounce back. And it is, ‘Complacency, arrogance, and greed that crowd out resilience. Humility and noble purpose that fuel it.’

The culture that you allow to exist within your business in respect to failure will set the tone for all your leaders and the entire business. In fact, establishing the correct attitude towards failure is critical if it is to be able to innovate and grow effectively. See my earlier article titled ‘Faith Is Spelt R-i-s-k’ for a discussion of this theme.

An extract from my guide ‘Achieve – Creating A Life Of Enduring Success’ provides the following thoughts on failure and humility:

A Word About Failure

To be successful you must learn to fail. Failing is not a bad thing – it is an essential ingredient of being successful. Failure is just about trial and error until you hit upon the right formula for your success. Failure is about learning where your strengths lie and where your weaknesses exist. You will be unable to play to your strengths unless you have experienced failure in many areas of your life.

So the key to failure is your attitude towards it. Successful people say ‘Oops’ when failure occurs and keep going. (Well, truthfully they often say far ruder words than ‘Oops!’). But you pick yourself up and keep going, grabbing hold of the learnings and using them to your advantage.

Also accept the fact that if you have invested heavily in a goal and it has not worked out, that it’s going to hurt and there may well be a period of grieving over this loss. Allow that to occur and give yourself time to pick yourself up, heal your wounds and then throw yourself back into it again. The bigger the goal, the bigger the fall and the more it will hurt – expect and accept it. And say openly to your family and friends, ‘That hurt! I’m not going to do 
that again. Here, give me a hand to get up so I can get going again.’ Don’t pretend it didn’t happen or didn’t hurt. Learn from it and invest that knowledge in succeeding.

Humility and Its Power

Humility is a virtuous strength that allows you to place someone else before yourself, to uplift them and invest in them. It is not a sign of weakness or lack of ambition, but rather a willingness to hold power in the service of others. It is reflected in the business leader who places the business, its employees and its customers before themselves. It allows that business leader to promote the strengths of everyone else involved in the business and to lead it to greatness by not placing their self-interest at the forefront.

Humility allows you to learn and be grateful, to not take yourself too seriously, to seek continuous improvement, to take failure in your stride and to work with the best, at their best. It is a foundational trait upon which all else can be built as it allows you to be open to continuous improvement and learning and to win the trust, support and effort of everyone you work with. Humble people are the greatest leaders.

Don’t Assume The Character Traits Exist

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Clarke Murphy is an article titled When Leaders Are Hired For Talent But Fired For Not Fitting In’, also published in HBR, note, ‘Over and over again, organisations are unable to appoint the right leaders… the baseline for effective corporate leadership is merely 30%… 75% of employees report that their direct line manager is the worst part of their job and 65% would take a pay cut if they could replace their boss with someone better.’

The authors go on to note that one of the most critical errors businesses make is a failure to ‘decode leader’s motives and values’.

Don’t assume that a leader you recruit or appoint has the right character traits. And psychometric testing is unlikely to provide you with the assurances you need. One of my recent articles, ‘Choosing Worthy Leaders’, provides some guidance on the traits you should seek in all of your leaders. An extract of which is below.

The ceiling to the success of your business lies in your leadership team’s level of worthiness, with the lowest dominator setting that ceiling. That is, your weakest leader sets the limit to your success.

The strengths sought in a leader are:

  • Courage
  • Wisdom
  • Benevolence
  • Trustworthiness
  • Loyalty

Leaders who exhibit the following weaknesses should be avoided:

  • Courageous and reckless.
  • Hasty and impatient.
  • Greedy and profit loving.
  • Benevolent but unable to enforce discipline.
  • Wise but unafraid.
  • Trusting but has a liking to trusting others.
  • Scrupulous and incorruptible but not loving of people.

As a leader, you must enable taking failure in your stride, take ownership for its impact and reengage quickly in moving forward. It is your personal traits that will support or weaken you in this task.

And it is this capability that will set the standard for your entire business.

It is About Your Competitive Engine

But the weight of failure does not need to sit on your shoulders alone, nor should it.

There is an engine that drives the competitiveness of your business, which sets the floor and ceiling to your success. It holds the answers to your performance and your performance problems, even if you are not aware of its existence.

An element of your competitive engine is the relationship that is built between your leadership team and all who work within and outside the business in supporting its purpose. This relationship must be one of trust whereby the leaders are known to have the best interests and welfare of all who work for the business ahead of their own. And this trust is wrapped in a meaningful purpose for the business’s existence and reinforced by the right vision and culture.

Through this competitive engine, leadership creates a business in which success and failure are owned by everyone. In such an environment leaders will not be left to carry the burden alone but will be supported in overcoming any challenges. In such an environment failures will be quickly turned around and the strength of the ‘whole business’ will provide the focus and energy to continually move forward to greater success.

A leader who builds a strong competitive engine is underpinning their business’s success in good times and not-so-good times. Building the engine reflects their efforts to ensure they always have the support of everyone involved in making their business a success.

As a leader, you must be conscious of your personal character traits and always seek to strengthen them. You must apply this same standard to all the leaders throughout your business.

And you must build and sustain the competitive engine of your business so that its core strength can and will overcome all challenges.

Do these things and you will not need to explain the failure as the ‘whole business’ will have your back and as ‘one’ you will move forward. This is the type of business you want to lead.


Active Knowledge Questions:

How do you maintain the total support of your team/business?

As a business leader, how do you deal with failure?



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All the best in the success of your business,

Richard Shrapnel