I have a friend – we’ll call her Jen – who’s on a fast-track to a highly successful career. She’s smart, hard-working, and quite talented at finding new ways to delight her clients. She is also a great team player: she shares her most effective new practices with her more-experienced teammates, and she’s terrific at motivating them to stretch to keep up with her. She’s only been out of school a couple of years, but she has all the signs of being a highly successful leader within her company (or another company, for that matter).
All the signs but one: to my knowledge, she has never failed at anything.
Jen isn’t ready to lead yet. Terrific as she is, her lack of failure to date has denied her one of the most important traits a leader needs to be successful: empathy. I should know. I suffered from a similar deficiency a few years back, and now that I’ve stumbled and fallen a time or two, I’m a much more effective leader for the experience.
Although it seemed to take a painfully long time to me in the moment, Coiné Language School was an overnight success. Basically, after years of teaching, I put on my entrepreneur’s hat and struck a home run my first time at bat. Sales came easily to me because I was selling something I loved and truly believed in. Delighting our clients came easily to me (which brought us a lot more sales!). Hiring and keeping the best teachers in Greater Boston came easily to me (which made new and repeat sales ever-easier).
Despite my best intentions at modesty, I couldn’t help but look at our success and think to myself, “Man, business is easy! Why do others struggle with it?”
Ouch. That’s a really, really huge psychic flaw to overcome.
There are innumerable reasons that people struggle with success, be it on the organizational level or in their own careers. In order to succeed long-term, you have to fall down and scrape your knees – it isn’t just a good idea; you have to!
- Jack Welch knows this. The celebrated former Chairman of GE blew up a factory early on in his career. A factory. The lessons he learned from that were key to his eventual success.
- Steve Jobs was fired from his own company! That’s right, Apple’s board sacked him from the firm he started in his own garage. He wandered around the career wilderness for several years, and when he returned… well, I think we all know that story.
- Winston Churchill is probably the most famous example of early failure and ultimate success in the annals of history. Young and cocky, his plan to end World War I early with the invasion of Gallipoli failed miserably when his own admiral contravened orders, exposing the British army to slaughter. Churchill had to wait two decades for his chance to lead his nation. When he finally did, he was arguably the savior of the free world.
My own failure was much less dramatic than any of those. Flush with my success from our language school, convinced I had the touch regardless of the endeavor, I tried my hand at the nonprofit realm. Did we help people who needed it? Certainly, and some quite profoundly. Do I consider those two years a success? Hell no. I returned to the world of profit because I had to admit, that’s what I understand, what I’m good at. It hurts just writing about it.
And that’s the thing. That pain doesn’t just drive me to succeed; it also helps me empathize with others who are having trouble in their endeavors, no matter what the field. I get it now. Or at least I get a big part of “it” that I was missing before.
Were Jen to lead right now, she’d be frustrated with her people when they failed to perform. Rather than understand from a gut level a little of what they’re going through, she’d find them lazy, or stupid, and certainly not worth her effort. She wouldn’t have a reservoir of shared experience to draw on in order to help them through their temporary challenges. Sooner or later, this would bite her in the ass.
Have you failed at anything important to you? Chances are, unless you’re really young like Jen, then you have – especially given what the global economy has brought us through in the past few years. In one very important way, you’re lucky.
Embrace your failure. Sure, continue to hate it. But take that bruise on your psyche and allow it to teach you one of the most important lessons any leader must master: empathy.
A version of this post appeared on Ted’s previous blog.