A key role of any enlightened, contemporary leader is to identify, develop, and nurture talent. Taking risks on individuals, especially younger, upwardly mobile leaders who hold promise, is crucial in this role. Many say that failure is a great teacher. We know that Abraham Lincoln lost jobs, failed at business, was defeated in his bid for the state legislature, was defeated
for Speaker, and was defeated for the Senate before enjoying his ultimate success as President. Michael Jordan was purportedly cut from his high school basketball team for “a lack of skill.” J. K. Rowling was famously rejected by twelve publishers before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was successfully published. In Silicon Valley, it is a badge of honor to fail, sometimes multiple times, before succeeding. The idea is that each failure adds to your understanding of what not to do the next time around.
The “if you don’t succeed, try and try again” approach seems to work for some, but not for all, especially those who work inside larger public or private companies. While failure can be a great teacher, it can also destroy the confidence and upward mobility of individuals and teams. My own experience is that near failure is often a better teacher than actual failure. Think of near failure as encompassing essentially all the critical lessons of actual failure without the emotional and psychological impacts on a person’s confidence, reputation, and self-esteem. A March 2021 article by Harvard Business School senior writer Kristen Senz titled “How to Learn from the Big Mistake You Almost Make,” reminds us that there is much to be learned from near mistakes. Senz reports on a study conducted by Amy C. Edmondson, Olivia S. Jung, and colleagues who interviewed seventy-eight oncology radiologists to discover their level of willingness to report close calls with patients.
The study results show that those who have a higher level of perceived psychological safety are more likely to admit their close calls than those who do not. A leader’s attitude and language surrounding near misses can make a big difference Edmondson says, “People don’t pay enough attention, especially in the business world, to the potential goldmine of near misses.” Effective leaders acknowledge that things go wrong and people who catch mistakes are demonstrating “vigilance and resilience.” They are more likely to see their aspiring leaders grow faster and further from near failure. More often than not, it is better to create a pattern of learning from mistakes and near failure than to reach the point of actual failure.
–Excerpt from Taking Stock: 10 Life and Leadership Principles from My Seat at the Table by Peter de Silva, Gravitas Press.