Don’t Even Think About Failing – by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus

Those who walk the road to success look ahead, not back.

Ray Meyer, a legendary American basketball coach, led his team to 37 winning seasons. One year, when his team dropped its first game after 29 straight home court victories, we asked how he felt about it. His reply: “Great! Now we can concentrate on winning rather than on not losing.”

For many people, the word “failure” carries with it a sense of finality. But for the successful leader, failure is a beginning, the springboard to renewed efforts. Leaders simply don’t think about failure. This became clear to us after we had interviewed and studied 90 successful men and women – executives, politicians, sports stars and others – for our book on leadership. Indeed, those who lead don’t even use the word, relying on such synonyms as “mistake”, “false start”, and “setback”.

One of them told us: “If I have an art form on leadership, it is to make as many mistakes as quickly as I can in order to learn.” Another recalled Harry Truman’s famous maxim: Whenever I make a bum decision, I just go out and make another one.”

Fletcher Byrom, retired chairman of Koppers, a construction materials and services company, was asked what was the hardest decision he ever had to make. He responded : “I don’t know what a hard decision is. All I can do is the best I can. To worry puts obstacles in the way of clear thinking.”

William Smithburg, chairman of Quaker Oats, took responsibility for two “mistakes” – the acquisition of a video-game business he has since closed down, and a pet-accessory business he bought and then wrote off. Later he told his employees: “I want you to take risks. There isn’t one senior manager in this company who hasn’t been associated with a product that flopped. That includes me. It’s like learning to ski. If you’re not falling down, you’re not learning.

While we can’t say the leaders we interviewed hailed their failures, they were convinced they and their people could learn from mistakes. Some years ago, a promising IBM junior executive lost the company several million dollars in a risky venture. Thomas Watson, IBM’s founder, called the executive into his office, and the young man blurted out, “I guess you want my resignation?” Watson replied , “You can’t be serious. We’ve just spent millions of dollars educating you.”

Another attitude shared by these leaders is that they value the adventure of pouring their energies into a task. In each, we found a fusion of work and play. They enjoy what they’re doing too much to worry about failure.

They are walking the leadership tightrope without fear.

From Leaders: The Strategies of Taking Charge, copyright 1985. Published by Harper and Row Ltd, London.

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