Bouncing Back From Failure

I’m usually not interested in preseason football. It’s like watching all-star wresting — lots of meaningless activity. However, I viewed the first quarter of a few games to prime the pump for the coming season. One disheartening thing I saw was a talented rookie wide receiver blow his knee out, most likely ending his season and perhaps his career.

Luckily, most people in leadership roles don’t ruin their career with one bad or unlucky play, unless it’s terribly egregious (it’s tough to survive a prison sentence and recover).

I’ve never been fired, though I came close a couple of times (having been self-employed for over a decade, I’ve since eliminated my risk, though my boss is sometimes an idiot!). However, I know many talented people who’ve lived through firings and failed ventures, whether because of their actions or someone else’s, and gone on to prosper. Show me a seasoned executive who says he has had no failure in his career, and I’ll bet he’s either a saint, extremely lucky or a liar … and I’ve never met a saint or anyone that lucky!

The challenge is viewing failure as a step toward success rather than a step toward the career grave. The sales training community tells you to celebrate the “no” as a partial step toward your next sale. That’s good advice, but I’m talking about a fiasco in a leadership position, e.g., getting asked to leave or having a visible failure.

My observations of those who crossed the chasm …

Own the failure, but realize you aren’t the failure. Most successful public figures have had some tremendous debacles in their life because they were brave enough to try. To get perspective, talk to someone — a coach, a mentor, a friend — with the context to understand.

Become comfortable talking about it and showing your humility and what you learned from it. If you eliminate large chunks of your background — whether you’re looking for a new executive role or talking to investors or friends — you’ll lose credibility and do yourself a disservice. If something that you believe was out of your control caused you to fail, you probably still own a piece of it. Blaming doesn’t sound good, even if you think you have the right.

Don’t be afraid of failing again. You cannot be in an executive role and spend your career running scared, trying to eliminate all risk. Those people are called frauds or chocolate bunnies — sweet on the outside, hollow on the inside. Don’t be one.

Only a masochist likes failure more than success, but maybe failing is just part of the learning process, regardless of your age or position.

Why the picture of Walt Disney? He was fired by a newspaper because he had no imagination and no good ideas.

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