Leadership Thought: Great Leaders Embrace Failure

Many of life’s failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

Thomas Edison

So many times throughout my life I have heard about people who worked in organizations that didn’t recognize that with true success also comes failure.  I believe that great leaders embrace failure as a way to get better.  Thomas Edison has also been quoted “we now know 1000 ways not to create a light bulb.”  What a positive view!  Why don’t we take that approach in other things we do?

In my time in the Army I worked for great bosses who took a similar approach.  They encouraged people to try new things.  What they asked in exchange was to do a risk assessment to minimize the chance of someone being hurt and to learn from each mistake and not repeat it.  How that was done can be applied in any business.

Risk Assessment

The Army has a dedicated Safety Center that looks at accidents and determines ways to prevent them from happening again.  Those accidents include things that happen on duty and off.  The Safety Center helps leaders by providing classes and tools to mitigate risks.  NOTE: If you look at the website above you will notice the slogan “Army Safe is Army Strong” which is one more example of how the employer brand is being incorporated into all elements of the Army.

The chart below depicts the Composite Risk Management Process.  The hazards are identified through a series of questions relative to the task.  Those tasks range from military operations to operation of a car.

After Action Reviews (AARs)

The US Army, and other military organizations, conduct operational reviews, either formal or informal, after each mission.  The purpose is to identify things that went well and areas needing improvement.  Typically the after action review addresses key topics using a format of Action, Discussion and Recommendation.  Someone has even developed an iPhone App using the Army process for conducting AARs.

Innovation does not come without a price and sometimes that price is failure to achieve the end result.  True leaders recognize that we can learn as much or even more from failure as we do from success.  Imagine the following were a resume.  Would you hire this person? Would

YEAR FAILURE/SETBACK SUCCESSES
1832 Lost job
Defeated for state legislature
Elected company captain of Illinois militia in Black Hawk War
1833 Failed in business Appointed postmaster of New Salem, Illinois
Appointed deputy surveyor of Sangamon County
1834 Elected to Illinois state legislature
1835 Sweetheart died
1836 Had nervous breakdown Re-elected to Illinois state legislature (running first in his district)
Received license to practice law in Illinois state courts
1837 Led Whig delegation in moving Illinois state capital from Vandalia to Springfield
Became law partner of John T. Stuart
1838 Defeated for Speaker Nominated for Illinois House Speaker by Whig caucus
Re-elected to Illinois House (running first in his district)
Served as Whig floor leader
1839 Chosen presidential elector by first Whig convention
Admitted to practice law in U.S. Circuit Court
1840 Argues first case before Illinois Supreme Court
Re-elected to Illinois state legislature
1841 Established new law practice with Stephen T. Logan
1842 Admitted to practice law in U.S. District Court
1843 Defeated for nomination for Congress
1844 Established own law practice with William H. Herndon as junior partner
1846 Elected to Congress
1848 Lost renomination (Chose not to run for Congress, abiding by rule of rotation among Whigs.)
1849 Rejected for land officer Admitted to practice law in U.S. Supreme Court
Declined appointment as secretary and then as governor of Oregon Territory
1854 Defeated for U.S. Senate Elected to Illinois state legislature (but declined seat to run for U.S. Senate)
1856 Defeated for nomination for Vice President
1858 Again defeated for U.S. Senate

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln won the election to become President of the United States and the rest is history.


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