When I was learning to ski back when I was in high school, I was taught that the most important thing to learn is how to fall well. Now, there’s two ways to judge quality. When you’re on the ski lift, and you see someone wipe out spectacularly below you, you judge a good fall by factors like whether both skis and poles separate from the individual, what body parts hit snow at high speeds, number of twists, etc. When you’re the one falling, you use different parameters. You want to fall in such a way that your skis don’t twist and cause knee damage, that you don’t hit stationary objects, and that you are able to get up again. During the recent Olympics, we saw some people who knew how to fall. Do you remember Anja Paerson, the female downhill skiier who crossed the finish line on her face? She ended up getting bronze two days later. That was someone who knew how to fall.
I think what Michelle Braden would tell you is that leaders need to know how to fall. They need to be able to get back up, stiff and bruised as they are, and try again. When gauging leadership potential we need to consider, What is a young person’s ability to fail and then recover again? Do they understand how to do that? As I think about her question, “Do they understand the process to recover from failure?” I suspect most organizations don’t have any kind of articulated process for that. What they have instead is a track record. I heard recently about an executive in Orlando who very publicly blew it in managing a division of the company. The CEO took him under his wing and gently restored him and built up his confidence again. He is now CEO of a division of that company. How many people in the company watched that happen? I guarantee you there are leaders in that company who have followed that same model to restore others. And I guarantee you the young leaders and aspiring leaders in that company noticed.
So, I think there are three points that are worth discussing. First, stop and ask yourself: What is your organization’s track record for recovery from failure? What can you as a leader do to change or build on that track record?
Second, as established leaders, keep your eye open for failure. Look for young people who show fortitude and resilience in failure. We can look for those who can take the heat and handle pushback. We can look for those who can stand by a decision that blew up on them and not make excuses. We need to be quick to come alongside them and not let them stay down too long.
Third, take a moment to think: What was your first big failure? What lessons did you learn from it that you still apply today?
I like to warn graphic designers that a day will come when they would cost their company money because of a bad decision. If they are lucky, it will only cost the company hundreds. My first big mistake cost my company a couple of thousand. I remember getting the bank stationery back from the printer and picking up the first sheet of letterhead. It felt like it was printed on copy paper. I got a big knot in my throat. I had to go to the namesakes of our public relations firm and own my mistake — that I had trusted the recommendation of our print broker without verifying the paper myself. We of course reprinted the job. That situation ended up breaking my relationship with the printer that we had used for years, and I probably could have handled that situation differently. My boss never complained about the cost. But I’ll tell you this: I worked harder at my job after that point. I swore I would never disappoint my boss again. And to this day, I trust my vendors but verify everything.
Failure is great leadership development… if you know how to fall well.