The Value of Failing

Have you every failed at anything? How did you feel about that experience? Did it make you want to give up? If so, you need to adjust the way you look at failure. As pointed by Henry Petroski, professor of engineering and history at Duke University, “The biggest misperception people have about failure is that it is all bad.”

Albert Einstein once said, “You never fail until you stop trying.

If you look at the lives of many of America’s heroes, you will find that they were unsuccessful in their earlier years. The biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson are classic examples of this.

Lincoln is unquestionably one of the greatest leaders this country has ever had; however, prior to being elected president in 1860, he had a number of failures, including losing his jobs, failing in business, losing eight campaigns for public office, and suffered numerous rejections by colleagues and constituents.

While Edison was attempting to create the electric light bulb and experiment after experiment was unsuccessful, someone called him a failure. He retorted, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

The difference between the people who accomplish things in their lives and those who see unsuccessful attempts at a task as failure is that the first group does not forget the lessons learned in their formative years.

A young child fails many times before he accomplishes the task of locomotion. The child first scoots, then crawls then walks and even in the process of learning to walk, the child falls many times before he learns to walk.

As parents, we do not discourage a child from attempting to walk just because he or she falls. We know that eventually the child will gain the skills necessary to accomplish the task.

Somewhere along the line, however, many people began to view “failure” as all bad. They forget the lessons learned from early childhood about not giving up. We are all going to fail at some time in our life. Making mistakes is a part of the process. Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.” Joseph Conrad said, “It’s only those who do nothing that make no mistakes.”

We need to realize that failing at something does not make us a failure unless we give up.

Great leaders understand that failure is symbiotic with learning. That is what called Michael Jordan to say, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

In his article, Failing Your Way to Business Success, entrepreneur, investor and sales strategist, Graham Dockrill, points out:

You will find that the most successful people in life have failed the most times. If you welcome failure as a guide and teacher, you’re more likely to find your way to success. Secondly, when you and your business are driven by discovery, you take a step forward, gather feedback and adapt.

The things that we get from failure that give it value are:

Failure Builds Character – There is a lesson to be learned from everything that happens to us and that includes failing. One of the greatest benefit earned from failure is strength of character. Failure hurts. It causes to us to reexamine our action. If life were perfect and every endeavor ended in success, we would not learn as much – failure teaches us more about ourselves and builds character better than success ever could.

Failure Provides Learning Opportunities – Early educational reformer John Dewey said it best: “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes”

As Edison’s quote about learning what does not work demonstrates, there is value in examining why we were not successful in our attempts to do something. In an earlier column I mentioned Fred Rangel telling me about a situation which I do not recall. He said that I looked at him and said, “Okay, you paid your tuition. What did you learn?” Every failure should be viewed as an opportunity to learn.

I have often told people, “I have never failed at anything; however, I have certainly had a tremendous number of never-to-be-repeated learning experiences.” I believe we waste a golden opportunity when we do not learn from our failures.

Failure Teaches Resiliency and Persistency: We need to remember the lessons of childhood when we did not know the meaning of failure and kept on trying until we learned to walk. As Thomas A. Edison emphasized “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” That is a valuable lesson to learn.

Rather than give up when he did not make the Laney high school basketball team’s varsity squad, Michael Jordan dedicated himself to becoming a better player.

Failure promotes Growth – When our failures lead to, knowledge and persistence we grow. We reach deeper meanings and understandings about ourselves and our organizations and why we do the things we do. This helps us to reflect and put things into perspective and develop meaning from painful situations. Growth allows us to eliminate the errors and create streamlined processes in our organization’s culture.

My favorite philosopher, Anonymous is quoted as saying, “Failure is life’s great teacher; it is nature’s chisel that chips away at all the excess, stripping down egos as it molds and shapes us through divine intentions.”

Since we know everyone fails at something and since failure builds our character, provides learning opportunities, teaches resiliency and persistency, and promotes growth, why should we fear it.

As Winston Churchill has pointed out, “Success if not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”

If you want to be a great leader, go out and fail your way to success.

Helpful Hints for Executives

Leadership Coaching with Mel Brown

Because of the tremendous response I received to March’s column which contained “Helpful Hints for Executives,” I decided to present some additional   “Helpful Hints.”   The two hints    I would like to pass on this month are: “People Do Things for Their Reasons, Not Yours” and “The Time to Start Planning Your Next Budget is Immediately After You Get Approval on the Previous One.” 

Hint # 4 People Do Things for Their Reasons, Not Yours

As a supervisor, manager, or executive, you may wonder why people you supervise don’t do what you would like them to do or why your boss or board of directors doesn’t respond positively to your ideas.  It may be because you described what you wanted done in terms of what moves and motivates you and not in terms what moves or motivates them.  It is important to understand that people do things for their reasons, not yours. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”  The question, then, is “how do we get people to want to do what we want done?” 

The answer is that people will always behave in ways that are congruent with their highest values.  If you understand that person’s highest values—what really means something to them—and you speak with them in a language that resonates with their highest values, you are more likely to get them to perform in the way you desire.

Let me illustrate the principle this way. When I was Executive Director of the Montgomery County Department of Community Supervision and Corrections, the Community Justice Assistance Division (CJAD) of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), announced that in order to divert offenders from the Institutional Division (ID) of TDCJ, CJAD would make money available to local departments to develop and operate community corrections facilities (CCFs). 


The Value of Looking Back

Leadership Coaching with Mel Brown

Recently, I read an extremely well-written, thought provoking posting on LinkedIn written by Valerie Rivera, who describes herself as a “Culture Catalyst/Design Thinker/Coach.” I not only connected with Valerie on LinkedIn, but also obtained permission to use her posting as the introduction to this month’s column. Her posting said:

My heart was pounding so hard in my chest, I thought it might explode.

I’d finally attempted to go running in Colorado, but my lungs were revolting against me. After years of living at sea level, the altitude was really taking its toll.

In a show of solidarity (or maybe pity?), my right shoe untied itself three times. The left one was not so generous. Still, I welcomed the excuse to stop and catch my breath, grateful that I’d skipped the double knots – but dejected by my apparent lack of stamina. I turned around to head back just as the sun began to set, and the view shocked me. I’d been running uphill THE ENTIRE TIME!

I was so focused on putting one foot in front of the other that I hadn’t even noticed the true magnitude of my quest. Then it hit me – this was just like starting a business. Disappointment, rejection, elation – sometimes all in the same day! Which leads me to wonder: when things are difficult, do we turn around often enough to celebrate how far we’ve come? More.. Read Full Article

Do It – Write: Part 2

Leadership Coaching with Mel Brown

In last month’s column we explained the “Do It – Write” approach to writing for publication, explored how to develop articles using this approach, and discussed potential sources from which you could draw material for publication.

Incentives to Write

While the leaders in most professions are not generally given the “publish or perish” mandate faced by those in the academic ranks, having material published in a recognized journal can enhance the career of the writer. Most employers will view favorably those individuals who bring positive recognition to their organization by publishing information about their programs, services or products.

Having your work appear in print also brings recognition from peers in the field. This recognition often brings with it opportunities to speak at conferences and seminars or to serve as a consultant to other organizations. These activities, in turn, provide additional opportunities to develop material for publication.

In the “Do It – Write” approach, not only does speaking furnish material for articles, but having your work published can also provide additional opportunities to speak. Each activity serves as a resource for the other.

In addition to the benefits or incentives mentioned above, writing for publication gives one a sense of accomplishment and also serves as a form of self-development. The more you write and speak, the better you become at writing and speaking.

Do It – Write: Part 1

Leadership Coaching with Mel Brown

In your capacity as a leader/manager, you may be called upon to make a presentation to a group regarding the work your organization does, to serve as a speaker for seminars or workshops, to write a grant or a proposal or to prepare a report for your boss or board of directors.

The next time you find yourself involved in one of these activities, ask yourself if what you have to say might be of interest to a wider audience. If so, when you do one of the above activities, write. Consider turning that report or speech into an article for a magazine, newsletter or journal.

The “Do It – Write” idea came to me quite by accident. Just prior to moving to Conroe Texas in November, 1979, to begin my job as Director of the Montgomery County Juvenile Department, I attended a meeting of The Texas Corrections
Association. The editor of that association’s journal asked me to submit an article for publication. Extremely flattered, I readily agreed. However, I moved to Conroe, got involved in my new job and forgot about writing the article.

When the deadline for submission my manuscript was imminent, I frantically began searching for a subject for the article. In my search I discovered the penciled outline of a speech I had given numerous times to college classes and civic
groups. That outline became the skeleton around which I built the article, “A Philosophy of Juvenile Detention,” which appeared in the January/February 1980 issue of the Texas Journal of Corrections.

How to Get People to Want to do What You Want Done!

Leadership Coaching with Mel Brown

I wanted one of those facilities for my jurisdiction. The state required that the application for these funds be approved by the local Board of Judges prior to submission. I knew each of the judges on my board. I knew their values and their judicial philosophies. I went to each judge individually to try to persuade him or her to support the application when it came to the entire Board for official approval. What I said in my presentation to each of the judges was based upon his or her philosophy.

While there were 9 judges on the board, I am going to share with you the approach I took with the two who were on each end of the continuum of judicial philosophies. On one end was a judge who had been the elected prosecutor for 12 years before ascending to the bench. His philosophy of probation was something like “trail ‘em, nail ‘em and jail ‘em.”

The other judge was what I refer to as a stereotypical “frustrated social worker” judge. His approach to community supervision was therapeutic. He wanted to “save the world,” but he continued to give offenders chance after chance long after their behavior demonstrated they had no desire to change.