Leadership by failing: You Can’t Expect to Win Unless You Know Why You Lose

by Jim Sullivan Copyright

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” –Truman Capote

I’ve made some bone-headed mistakes in my business career. The short list includes failing early-on to recognize and develop talented employees, ignoring good advice on site selection, and partnering with dishonest people that I mistook for friends. Hard lessons to learn, but learn them I did. As a result, I hold high-performers, sage counsel and honesty in the highest regard these days. I probably wouldn’t have become so smart without having screwed up in the first place, but I also give myself credit for learning the lesson in each misstep and using it to make better choices. “Live and learn” is not a gimme each time one screws up; experience teaches only the teachable. It takes skill, humility, and discipline to learn from failure. And a good deal of tenacity too; consider the Asian proverb that advises to “fall down seven times, but stand up eight.”

Success does not create wisdom, overcoming adversity does. When you study outstanding performers—explorers, athletes, businesspeople, artists, politicians—you find overcoming failure as a common theme. We’ve all heard about Lincoln’s many failed attempts to gain or retain elected office prior to becoming president for example. In these challenging times, new strategies and tactics must be fielded and risked to stay ahead of the game. So this month let’s discuss the notion of Leadership by failure, how to overcome adversity, and how to prevent mistakes from happening in the first place.

Screw up when the stakes are small. My first Regional VP at Brinker used to say: “Success comes from good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” When you are first promoted to a leadership role, whether as an assistant manager or new area manager, try as many new ideas as possible. As the old basketball saw goes: you miss 100% of the shots you never take. If you mess up early in your role, the “halo effect” will buy you time to learn and grow from the misstep.

Study the train wrecks. Minimize failure by studying the foodservice companies (or individuals) who’ve failed. Our industry is filled with cautionary tales of once-strong brands that withered, and a plethora of also-rans, woulda-beens, coulda-beens, mighta-beens and shoulda-beens. Every failed brand is full of lessons for people willing to learn.

Accept mistakes as the price of progress. Mistakes are to learn from, not become neurotic about. That means the first thing to learn from failure is why not to do it that way again. “The only way you can really change,” said musician Joe Strummer, “is by not repeating your mistakes.”

Correct mistakes as you go. A pilot friend who tells me that a 747 flying from Chicago to Honolulu is off course 90% of the time—but the crew is constantly vectoring, correcting, and aligning the flight plan based on prevailing conditions. In sports, a good coach makes adjustments to her game plan in real time based on her team and competitor’s performance. If you sense your chosen strategies and tactics for 2009 may now require re-alignment or adapting a different course, then do it and adjust your plan accordingly.

Not making a decision is worse than not taking a chance. There are two kinds of leadership sins: sins of commission and sins of omission. This means either doing the wrong thing or not doing anything (paralysis by analysis). Not to decide is to decide…to do nothing. See the next point.

An ounce of prevention versus a pound of cure. Lest it sound like I’m romanticizing failure as a business practice, the fact is that learning by failing is the most expensive and dangerous way to gain an education. So how do successful organizations minimize failure before rolling out new strategies, processes or products? They picture first what total success and total failure would look like and then identify tactics that reinforce the right strategy. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, President Kennedy split his policy advisor group into a blue team and a red team. The blue team would detail all the reasons why a particular decision would succeed while the red team identified all the ways the decision could likely fail. This balanced process is credited with the successful stand-down of Russia during the later missile crisis of October 1962. But assessment-before-the-fact is not enough. Smart organizations assess both before and after implementation to both minimize risk and maximize key learnings. A recent article in Inc. magazine by Leigh Buchanan details a process known as BARs (before action reviews) and AARs (after action reviews) used by the US Army. BARs involve four questions: “1) What are our intended results and measures? 2) What challenges should we anticipate? 3) What did we or others learn in similar situations? 4) What do we think will make the biggest difference this time?” The After-Action Review (AAR) asks: “1) What were our intended results? 2) What were our actual results? 3) What caused our results? 4) What will we sustain or improve?” Many foodservice companies effect BARs but few enact the AAR. This is foolhardy since the only thing worse than making mistakes is making them over again. “The two reasons organizations will repeat mistakes,” says Buchanan, “is because they never identify what went wrong, or they don’t institutionalize the solution.” One more thing to consider is to post AARs on your intranet so that fellow executives, franchisees and managers can learn and improve from each new process or product launch. Encourage team members contribute to an ever-evolving database of company knowledge in the form of a companypedia similar to what Wikipedia has done.

Bottom line? Forget your mistakes, but remember what they taught you.