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Failure IS an option

Craig Van SlykeI teach a first-year seminar on self-leadership. One of my favorite topics is dealing with failure. My main message is that failure is an event, not a permanent condition. I illustrate this point with a C.S. Lewis quote, “Failures are finger-posts on the road to achievement.” Many of us take the wrong view of failure. We view failure as an entirely bad thing. Failure is, in fact, often only a waypoint to ultimate success. Our view of and reaction to failure determines how failure impacts you psychologically and emotionally, and the ultimate outcome of your failures. If you view failure as a wholly negative event (or, worse, as a personal characteristic), you quickly convince yourself not to take risks. (After all, “risk” is the possibility of a negative outcome, a failure.) Over time, you retreat into the safety of the known. This reminds me of another favorite quote, this one by Admiral Grace Hopper, hero to geeks everywhere, “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”

The successful among us take risks … and experience failure. What sets them apart is their view of failure. Failure is a natural outcome of experimentation, of trying new things, of pushing limits. Above all, failure is a learning experience. (Reflection is important here. Failure plus reflection equals learning. Failure without reflection equals failure.) Learning turns failure from a negative to a positive experience. Apple’s failed Newton paved the way for the iPhone. Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first television job. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Successful people recognize failures as learning opportunities. This reframing shifts the outcomes of failure from anger to growth, from regret to resilience, from depression to success. Having a clear sense of purpose is a huge help in your reframing effort; that purpose helps you understand the value of failure-based learning. There are three keys to learning from failure. We’ve already mentioned two, reflection and a sense of purpose. The third is understanding common sources of failure, which helps you diagnose how to move forward. Two common sources of failure are hypothesis testing (or exploration) and uncertainty. These failures come from the inherent risk of trying something new. These failures stem not from anything you did wrong, but are simply a natural part of innovation. In these cases, analyze what new information you’ve gained from the experience and use the new information in your next step.

Then there are avoidable failures. These include a lack of planning or inadequate processes. Or perhaps you had a good plan and simply didn’t follow it. Failure may also result from a lack of will. You simply didn’t want success badly enough. Finally, we have the most challenging source of all, a lack of ability. Admitting that failure results from a lack of ability is a bitter pill, but coming to this realization can help you move on. Once again, a strong sense of purpose can help. If you have a deep understanding of your purpose, failure from a lack of ability means finding a different path to living your purpose, and there are many paths, some of which suit you and some of which do not.

Let me leave you with a bit of leadership advice. Don’t punish smart failures. Years ago, I was an assistant high school basketball coach. One of the things I learned is that if you punish a player for taking a reasonable chance, such as going for a steal, that doesn’t work out, you’ll soon have a team full of passive players … and you won’t win many games. Help the player learn from the “failure” and you’ll have a team full of intelligently aggressive players, and more wins. As a leader, you need to do the same thing. If you want your team to be creative, innovative and intelligently aggressive, don’t pull them out of the game and scream at them. Help them learn from their failures, help them recognize good and bad opportunities, help them view failure as a step toward success. Do this and you’ll be the successful leader of a team full of smart, effective, innovative people. FBN


By Craig Van Slyke

The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to over 3,000 undergraduate and Master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to:, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.

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