I want to share with you something different today – the concept of failure.
Failure is a situation when you miss meeting your objective. Failure is when you are rejected for something you want. Failure is when you did not meet the expectations of those who mattered and failure is when you were not proactive and hence lost something.
I want to give you my personal three points on failure.
First, is failure good or bad?
I personally believe failure is good. It is good as long as you are willing to learn from it. Some of the greatest successes have come after being rejected or failed.
Amitabh Bachchan was rejected when he auditioned as a newsreader with All India Radio. He was told his voice was not good enough. Steven Spielberg was rejected many times over and he went on to make movies that grossed over $8 Billion. Walt Disney was rejected before his company became iconic. JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame was rejected countless times.
The common lesson we can learn from these examples is that these people did not allow failure/rejection to crush their self-confidence and self-belief and they were resilient to fight another day.
I believe we learn much more from failure if we are willing to learn from it. When we succeed, we rarely analyze it. We almost take it as a divine right and bask in its glory.
Failure to meet expectations happens to us when we are in school or college. Every parent wants their child to get the first rank and anything less is not called out as a failure, and the conversation goes like… “if that boy/girl can do it, so can you.”
Our next set of failures come when we play a sport in school or college or take part in cultural events. Our teachers put in a lot of effort to make us good at that game or event. We, however, win some and lose some. When we fail, we realize that we cannot win every day. We also realize that someone has to win, someone has to lose.
I played a lot of sports in school and college. When I lost, I realized that it did not matter whether I performed or not. What was important was that we won as a team. There were times when I performed well, and the team lost, and there were times when I underperformed, but the team did well. The important thing is not to blame others when we lose.
Our reaction to failure is what our teachers and parents instill in us at an early stage of life. I looked for encouragement and not to be sidelined whenever I failed.
Second, how does one handle failure?
When one fails, it is human nature to be protective and do the following:
a. Deny that it is a failure
b. Spin a new narrative on a minor point of victory in failure
c. Externalize and look for a fall guy/girl or point to factors beyond your control
When you deny failure and are powerful, people will go along with you, but things will worsen on the ground.
It is important to look for positives in something that’s gone wrong. However, most managers tend to point to ‘green shoots’ as a sign of strategy success when it is not, and the broader failure is the actual truth. People do this for motivation, encouragement, etc., but it does not take away from learning the proper lessons from failure. In a business context, you hold on to an asset or direction much longer by digging in your heels, and then it is too late.
The easiest and safest strategy is to externalize to deflect the negative emotions to another object/person/event. This approach is about shaming and blaming someone else and doesn’t help one bit of learning. My view is that, as long as you do your best and have maximized what you control, then the external event is what it is.
I would say, don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is never permanent, and success is not forever or guaranteed. When you fail, buckle down on your strengths and focus on leveraging your strengths. It is important to have emotional anchors to discuss failure. Emotional anchors tend to be a spouse or good friends, or a good boss.
The worst thing to do is to stop trying new things when you fail. You need to continue to try. One failure should not dampen your spirit of risk-taking. Don’t stop innovating.
I have found that humility is a good value in both success and failure.
Third, how do you handle failure when you are the leader?
When I am a leader, the challenge before me is when individuals can do far better but are not putting in the necessary efforts to be good. This I label the failure to achieve potential. I try and challenge these individuals to do better and raise their game instead of accepting their mediocre work. I have seen that failure comes from a lack of intellectual rigor and not a lack of intellect.
When I was a junior/senior manager, my leaders challenged me on rigor like KK Sridhar, Anand Bhatia, R Gopalakrishnan, Sanjay Khosla, Dalip Sehgal Harish Manwani, and Indra Nooyi. These leaders expected nothing but top-notch work and their standards made be more capable.
While many leaders raise the bar of expectations and make you better, very few accept responsibility for the decision when something goes wrong. As a leader, I have always tried to coach my team and tell my colleagues to do their best. When they put in their best, they rarely failed and if we failed, I took accountability for that. Taking personal accountability for team failure is a valuable leadership trait. This, I have seen, promotes more experiments and minor failure and not the other way around.
When one is a senior manager, you will often come into a difference of opinion or direction with your superiors, be it the CEO or the board. Their worldview is different from yours. I term this the failure to convince the seniors. I always tried my best to show them the true and balanced picture, but in some cases, one has to move on if that decision will hurt the larger company. All the senior managers could do little when the Nokia board and CEO chose Windows and not Android. This was a monumental mistake, but it was seen as a failure of execution and not a strategy when results did not come. The CEO and board did not accept the failure written on the wall. Nokia had no choice but to be sold.
In another role, I tried to convince the CEO that going with one ‘suspect’ ecosystem partner was not right for the business. Unfortunately, this was not seen as positive. Here at least, I was clear and learned that there are wheels within wheels and indifferent decision-making is what some people were up to. I clearly failed to make them see the truth.
I want to close with a story about Ricky Ponting, the only test player with 100 test wins and the most successful captain in cricket history. Ricky played for KKR in the first year and I got to know him. I interviewed him for the CNBC storyboard for Anuradha Sengupta.
In one of our chats, I asked him how he dealt with his colossal failure as a batsman on the India tour of 2003. Ricky made 16 runs in three test matches on that tour. His answer was interesting.
He said, ‘I had a choice to sit alone and mope or do something else. On that tour, Adam Gilchrist and Mathew Hayden were scoring all the runs. So, every evening, I would spend time with them, hoping that their luck and success would rub off on me.
Ricky Ponting took personal accountability for his failure and decided to address it most positively.
So, failure is good when we take:
- Personal accountability for it
- We learn from it and use it as continuous improvement vehicle to get older, wiser and better.
- Use failure as a stepping stone.
If you don’t fail, is it a life well lived?
This article has been reprinted with permission from Shiv Shivakumar’s LinkedIn page.