"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."
So far, so motivational poster - but what about the business world? Hardworking, competitive business leaders often say failure is not an option. It sounds decisive and high-powered. It’s also wrong. Failure is a necessary consequence of innovation, and in the words of Henry Ford, ‘only one who fears failure limits his activities; failure is only the opportunity to more intelligently begin again’.
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Success isn’t about never failing - it’s about embracing failure as a possibility. To do that, we have to know why we fear it; we have to know how to deal with it; and we have to set up a workplace culture that isn’t afraid of failure.
When do we start to fear failure?
The fear of failure starts in childhood: it’s drummed into us from a young age. The embarrassment of getting something wrong in a classroom; the pressure for the best grades, first place in the race, starring roles in the play - it all adds up. Manfred de Vries (Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD) argues that this early fear of failure gives rise to a chronic anxiety, a black-and-white state of mind in which there’s only success or failure; total victory or absolute defeat.
It’s difficult to shake this lifelong conditioning, no matter how many articles we read and write - but we have to try. Business isn’t a binary world - not everything will be an unqualified success, and business leaders need to roll with that and work with it, not refuse to acknowledge the possibility.
“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
― Denis Waitley
What harm does the fear of failure do?
Fear of failure is the root cause of perfectionism. To avoid failure, we prep, prep and prep again; we sit through meeting after meeting, pore over data, carry out endless hypotheticals and thought experiments… and this isn’t work. Perfectionists often procrastinate, over-emphasise minor details, and struggle to acknowledge success: “it must have been too easy,” they say, a conclusion which feeds back into their other bad habits.
Think about the early years of Apple - innovative, yes, but also slow. Apple was forever second in the marketplace, because everything had to be signed off personally by a perfectionist leader who was so afraid of failure that he never let himself succeed. The Apple 3 was a crashing failure; even the breakthrough Macintosh struggled to compete with Microsoft. Jobs’ vision wouldn’t allow him to pursue other markets or build on the success of the Apple II division; the resultant internal takeover is history. When Jobs returned as CEO of Apple in 1997, he’d been mellowed by his time in the VFX industry. A newer, less controlling Jobs, although still a visionary, was more prepared to take risks.
The lesson? No matter how hard you plan, things can still go wrong - and hanging on to an idea because you want to be sure it succeeds often means it misses its time. The resulting stasis is a business killer.
“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.”
Set the example: break the culture of fear
Lead by example. If you can reveal and own your mistakes, acknowledge your error and strive to improve. That sets a culture of openness, honesty and mutual support for the rest of the team. If you refuse to accept even the possibility of failure, your people won’t tell you what you need to know. Afraid to fail you and themselves, they’ll brush mistakes under the carpet for fear of confronting you with them - and eventually, those mistakes will come back to haunt you.
Failure has to be tackled head-on - not avoided, but embraced and explored. The things that can make our efforts fail have to be understood, discussed, tested and worked out. Failure is the root of all learning - it’s by making mistakes that we learn how to do things properly.
“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
It’s easier said than done. Embracing failure starts at the top, with business leaders losing their fear of failure: seeing it as both a learning opportunity and a natural part of any endeavour. Things will go wrong, and no amount of high-powered, hard-hitting leadership will stop them. The risk of failure is reduced by experimenting and testing in an open, honest environment that’s not trying to get things right first time.
“When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.”