Leading business transformation takes resilience. Resilience comes from falling down and getting back up again.
What else is true? I have failed and so have you. But we’ve kept that a secret from each other, haven’t we? People don’t like to talk about failures very much – especially “epic fails” but also small,
every day missteps. I absolutely understand humans’ deep reluctance to share stories of how they didn’t deliver what they or others expected of them, but failure is not shameful. What is shameful is the uncommonness of everyday sharing about failures and resurrections – without sharing, discussion and reflection, we don’t learn resilience.
Business leaders and managers absolutely must learn to accept and learn from failure. Yes, yes…this has been said for decades by management “gurus.” But now it’s for real, people! Do I once more need to quote the last 30 years of turnover stats for the Fortune 500 list of businesses, both in the US and globally? Do you need to read more about the VUCA world we operate in nowadays? Tell me you don’t feel like you’re navigating a world that’s vastly different than just 20 years ago. In this environment of relentless change and uncertainty,innovation and agility are the engine and engine oil, respectively, for growth more than ever. We have the technology, processes, operating models, and growing management awareness required to nurture organizations’ innovation prowess. We just need the mindset and capabilities, starting with a mindset of resilience and the capability (individually AND organizationally) to be agile.
So…not for nothing: we managers and leaders need to get over ourselves, our shame and our pride as it relates to failure if we expect our businesses to compete successfully in the 21st century economy. Why? Our actions as leaders and managers impact the performance of our teams and it is they who deliver on our organizations’ value propositions every day, so it is these teams we must influence to be more agile and innovative.
How do we learn to accept and learn from failure? The more you reduce the inner shame associated with failure – your own and others’ – the greater your capacity to quickly learn lessons from those missteps that will help you develop into a stronger, better, more successful professional. Consider this: the longer it takes you to learn those lessons, the longer you delay your greatness and your ability to pivot and adjust to new circumstances. In other words, the more you allow shame to overpower you amidst failures and setbacks, the more you stunt your individual resilience and agility, critical leadership capabilities in the 21st century.
Innovation is built, in part, on agility, which is built in large part on resilience: If, in the face of failures big and small, you can more easily Accept, Anchor and Focus Forward®, you’re more likely to be resilient: able to shift your attention away from the negative and toward the positive, the lessons learned, and the opportunities that now present themselves. And isn’t it in this forward-focused, opportunistic, positive mindset that innovation lies?
Resilience, on the other hand, wilts and withers in the face of shame.
A great way to start reducing the shame associated with screwing up is to realize every single one of the people surrounding you at this very moment has also screwed up something…probably something pretty big. There’s no way to know this without talking about it and sharing stories, without shining light on the dark emotion of shame, is there? Yet, we rarely do. Too bad, too: Sunlight is a great disinfectant.
Prove it! I recently led an executive workshop on Leading Through Uncertainty© for the CEO of a public multi-billion dollar (US) consumer packaged goods company and his senior leadership team. I wanted to introduce them to the concept of personal resilience in the context of a change leadership challenge, so naturally we had to talk about failures. To get the shame out of the way, I asked for volunteers to share stories with their colleagues and me of how their behavior amidst a recent, extraordinarily jarring series of corporate events had not aligned as well with the company’s strong values as they would have liked. From focusing on a customer that didn’t need his direct attention instead of his team that did need it after receiving bad news, to hibernating in the safety of her office instead of connecting with team members, very senior, verysuccessful and very smart individuals stood up and shared their stories of missteps, failures and setbacks.
I asked them to: a) sit with and describe the discomfort they felt knowing they’d done something they weren’t proud of without making excuses for their choices(accept), b) describe specifically how their choices weren’t aligned with values (anchor) and c) decide what they would do moving forward to be in better alignment with values (focus forward). What became apparent through the sharing of those stories was, first, that even the most senior executives of a highly successful business sometimes misstep. Phew! Second, it became apparent to them that their leadership choices impacted their teams’ willingness and readiness to accept the changing environment, and they saw that as leaders they could have immediate and lasting impact on organizational agility by shifting their individual behavior towards resiliency.
Let’s be real: life wasn’t transformed in that workshop – it rarely is. But a perceptive person would have noticed the energy in the room changing as these leaders were guided past the negativity of their misstep (which many had been consciously or subconsciously ignoring prior to the exercise), towards understanding the impacts of their behavior, learning from the experience and identifying what they could do differently next time. Practicing this process – which is almost impossible to do without external help (for obvious reasons) like a skilled group facilitator or individual leadership coach – develops individual resilience, the inner ability to recover efficiently and effectively from a setback, and provides a foundation for leaders to lead with agility, or respond constructively to environmental events and changes, knowing that inevitable setbacks during constant and unpredictable change are temporary, certainly are not shameful, and are full of opportunities for growth.
Shame, vulnerability, resilience…this is powerful and perhaps unusual subject matter. But dealing with the emotions behind failure and working to apply a simple resilience framework like the one I introduced is also absolutely necessary to develop the capacity for individual agility, the oil that greases the wheels of organizational innovation and growth during times of constant, unpredictable change.
The ability to move on – to put a poor judgment, a wrong answer, a weak moment, a lapse, behind you instantly – is the thing that makes winners out of the merely talented.” –Don Greene, Sports psychologist
I experienced a significant setback more than 3 years ago and it took me a very long time and lots of intense introspection to forgive myself and those who wronged me, move past that trauma and, perhaps most importantly to my personal and professional success, learn the lessons I needed to learn from it. This isn’t a story about how I failed and immediately picked myself back up.It’s a more realistic tale of failure, continued blindness, severe discomfort, self-discovery and then a slow but powerful resurrection.
Several years ago, I was given a choice between two very attractive job offers. One opportunity had no clear career path but a highly visible and well-regarded executive sponsor who shared my lifelong sense of being a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. It was focused on a customer-focused, potentially transformative business change effort, and only the company’s top talent was dedicated to the effort. The 2ndopportunity had a more familiar career path and loftier job title, but was focused on a less visible, low-performing and operationally-focused 18-month-old transformation effort. It featured a leadership team that seemed disjointed at best and intensely dysfunctional at worst, and a team that reported into me that included 2 people who had been rejected for the role I was offered. In spite of the obvious red flags, the latter opportunity appealed strongly to my ego and competitive nature (more senior title, team of direct reports, fix what others couldn’t), while the former appealed to my ownership, creative and entrepreneurial instincts (nurture change organically, work with super-smart people). I chose the role with the more glamorous title.
What happened? I was handed a team of largely average performers (by my standards), one of whom was a former Administrative Assistant who was placed on the team to avoid layoff. She was a phenomenal person but wasn’t skilled in the role of change manager, a title she’d been given regardless. I was reporting to someone whose weak backbone (essential in any change leader), coaching skills and job knowledge (his and mine) quickly became apparent. I was dealing with executives who, out of the presence of a different executive who’d wanted this role, didn’t in fact seem to care about the people side of change (oops). To top off things, a decision was made without my knowledge to move my role to a different business unit after I accepted the job but before I’d started. It took 6 months in this role for me to crash and burn.
Easy to find faults with the organization, yes? Perhaps, but not so fast! My behavior over the 6 month period reflected my inability to deal constructively with these profoundly befuddling disappointments and my damaged ego. I couldn’t fix the problem, my title didn’t matter to anyone but my parents, and my team, despite investing $250,000 in their development over 6 months, wasn’t going to develop skills that they didn’t see as lacking. And I was never going to be given the authority to do anything about it! I was frustrated, felt completely devalued and marginalized, and couldn’t, despite 100% transparency and a deep commitment to their development, seem to earn the trust of my team, who all along had apparently been planting the seeds for my dismissal. I took it all personally and was mired in shame and self-judgment.
After leaving that company, I spent a lot of time worrying about the hundreds of employees who would be let go over the coming months who didn’t have severance guarantees or savings to fall back on as I did. That was my way of distracting myself from the real issues. Eventually, I just wanted to forget about the horrific experience so I accepted a great new role in another company and told myself to ‘just keep moving forward’…like a robot! About 1.5 years into my robotics experiment, however, I finally realized the hard truth:
Yes, I absolutely did NOT deserve to be dismissed from my job in such a shameful personal attack and those people were totally untrustworthy. AND…yes, I had also failed to constructively deal with my frustrations and misgivings.
I accepted responsibility for my actions. Eventually and with skilled coaching, I realized that the environment and people I dealt with in that job weren’t aligned to my inner values of truth, accountability, high performance and compassion. I re-anchored myself in what I valued most and acknowledged my behaviors that may not have aligned with my values. Then I was free to learn what had triggered my counterproductive behavior in that and perhaps previous roles. I could focus forward, NOT robotically ignore the past and shove down deep into my belly my feelings of shame about my failure to succeed. This knowledge and understanding gave me the power to control my reactions to the feelings triggered by certain events, rather than letting my emotions control my behavior. Accepting that I wasn’t perfect freed me up to develop some new skills that have made me far more effective as a professional change leader and advisor. My work helping individual leaders, leadership teams and entire organizations successfully lead during dynamic and unpredictable change has become more powerful, influential and authentic.
Of course, we’re all works in progress…but my point with this story is to illustrate how
shame keeps us bonded to failure while breaking free of shame frees us up to develop the capabilities necessary to lead successfully in the 21st century. Leading organizational change takes resilience.
In both examples, it started with a willingness to say out loud, “I failed,” to take the personal shame out of disappointing our own expectations of ourselves. Personally, I’m smarter, savvier, more resilient and far more agile for the experience. I feel better prepared than ever to lead myself and others in the 21st century – and to advise my clients and colleagues how to lead with more confidence in this environment of non-stop, rapid-fire uncertainty and change. Leading organizational change takes resilience and we learn resilience from falling down, sharing, discussing, and reflecting.
I hope you’ll join me on the journey towards greater resilience and agility by taking the shame out of a failure that perhaps you’ve kept to yourself. Share your setback in your next facilitated leadership team meeting and practice applying the simple framework I presented above – Accept, Anchor and Focus Forward® – to develop the resilience required to lead organizational change for more agility and innovation.
Onward and upward!