Failure: Is Failing Really Failure?

Do you ever fail?  Have you ever tried something different that you've never done before and it caused you to fail?  Or are you one to stay away from the "edge" in your comfort zone? I shared a few weeks ago that True Leaders Embrace Challenges, but I didn't share with you the amount of times that I failed in those challenges.  After reading an article this week, I thought about whether failing makes me a failure.  I reflected on the times I've failed, like when I lost my job the first time and then a second time.  I remember the multiple times I've screwed up in leading my wife and kids when I've gotten angry too quickly or said words that I didn't mean to say.  In all these situations, I did fail. But I didn't allow that to label me intrinsically as a failure.  I believe that I brought on these challenges (like accepting a job or two, falling in love and becoming a husband and father) even though I didn't know what it all entailed.  I also knew somewhere down deep inside that I may fail, but my father, who is an amazing blessing to me and has had a significant role in who I am today, instilled in me that failing is okay as long as you don't dwell there; use it to help you grow in the knowledge of yourself and continually improve yourself.    

One has to remember that every failure can be a stepping stone to something better.
— Col. Harland Sanders

Mike Thompson, well-known author of the book Anywhere Leader, says, "Whenever I have made a bold move and succeeded, I've learned so much more about myself and my capabilities.  Whenever I've made a bold move and failed, I've still learned so much more about myself and my capabilities. Either way, pushing myself, sometimes close to the edge, has given me incredible insights and perspective."

The author of Good to Great, Jim Collins, went to West Point to teach a series of classes to the Cadets. While there, he brought in a good friend of his, Tommy Caldwell, a rock climber known to be one of the greatest of all time.  Collins brought him in because he, too, is an avid rock climber and he had received some coaching from Caldwell. Caldwell shared some experiences in rock climbing that fit perfectly with Collin's teaching about leadership. 

Caldwell was famous at the time for climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park (seen on the left in the picture at the top of this post). However, at the time (near October 2014) no one had ever successfully free climbed the Dawn Wall of El Capitan. This was one of the hardest ascents in all of rock climbing and Caldwell, having failed 3 times already, was planning a fourth try this past January.  As Collins dug into the topic of failure, he asked Caldwell why he would try to make this climb again after failing three times. Caldwell came back with this answer, "Because success is not the primary point.  I go back because the climb is making me better. It is making me stronger. I am not failing; I am growing. To find your limit and experience the most growth, you have to go on a journey of cumulative failure.  Even if I never succeed in free climbing the Dawn Wall, it will make me so much stronger, and so much better, that most other climbs will seem easy by comparison."

 Tommy Caldwell & Kevin Jorgeson celebrate in January 2015 after being the first ever to free climb the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.  It took them 7 years, 3 failed attempts and this specific climb took them 19 days. (Photo by Rhys Blakely. Source: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/americas/article4323909.ece)

Tommy Caldwell & Kevin Jorgeson celebrate in January 2015 after being the first ever to free climb the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.  It took them 7 years, 3 failed attempts and this specific climb took them 19 days. (Photo by Rhys Blakely. Source: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/americas/article4323909.ece)

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made a fourth effort.  I am sure thoughts that they may fail again entered their mind, but I know they also had many thoughts like, "What if we do make it?"  Their determination, courage, skills and knowledge they had learned from the previous three climbs allowed them to finally make it up the Dawn Wall on January 14, 2015.  

My question to you this week is: What is your Dawn Wall?  How many times have you failed at the same thing?  Do you see it as failure or do you see it as a place that is going to make you stronger and a tool to help you learn more about yourself?  Your perspective of your failures is key.  I challenge you to  see failure in a different way not only for today, but for the rest of your life.  

Now let's consider your leadership with this new perspective.  Do you give your people "an environment to fail, but not let them become a failure?", as Stanley McChrystal, a retired Army General once said.  Do you know how they perceive failure in their work and in their lives? How can you inspire your people to change their perspective on failure?  I encourage you to have that conversation. Lead them. Let them fail, but don't let them become a failure because their perspective of failure is wrong. I encourage you to reflect for a minute on what your perspective of failure is and determine if there are changes that need to be made.  Have conversations with your people and talk about failure. I guarantee you that you will be able to lead them more effectively because of it.

In this 7-minute Ted Talk below, Elizabeth Gilbert, the writer of Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir of a world-wide trip she took after enduring some failures in her life, discusses failure, success and how we need to just focus on what we are passionate about and not worry about the outcome.  I think the content will get you to reflect and maybe think differently.  

If you would like to read the article about Jim Collins' experience at West Point,  click on the link below.  It was well worth the time it took me to read.  

READ ARTICLE ABOUT JIM COLLINS