two silver chess pieces on white surface

How to embrace failure? Three key steps.

How to Embrace failure and why is this important today?

There are three words every young leader dreads telling his team members.

“It’s my mistake.”

Every leader makes decisions. And many of these decisions fail. When the leader owns up her mistakes, we start seeing her as a path breaker. We start emulating her. We also start getting comfortable making mistakes and, more importantly, owning up for them. Failure without guilt is crucial for success.

But why is it so hard for many of us to embrace failure?

Nassim Taleb, in a recent video, made a very telling observation. Historically, in several European countries, people trained to become civil servants. They learned and focussed on picking the right skills and behavior to become a successful bureaucrat. They couldn’t fail – passing the appropriate exams and getting entry into the civil services had to be a success. This view is valid for Asians, too (definitely Indians). Our society pushes us to become Engineers/MBAs/Doctors/ CAs, and “settle” in life. There is no option of failure. Dropping from college (while becoming a little acceptable now) was frowned upon – failure was not an option. Our job was to pass those exams and join the high-paying jobs.

And therefore, even now – decades later – we find failure hard to accept. The only way we will accept is when a senior person or a role model demonstrates that it is ok.

There are two more components to this:

Unconditional acceptance is a must before embracing failure

Accepting mistakes as a habit should be unconditional. If we say it was my mistake “but” and put a reason behind it – it’s an excuse. It’s not an acceptance of failure. Of course, deliberating on what the mistake or failure taught us is super beneficial.

Reward for decisions, not just outcomes!

As Corporates, we have a fascination with outcomes. But we all know that results have a lot to do with randomness in today’s uncertain world. For grooming leaders, investment in decision-making skills is essential and needs rewarding – just as much as we reward results.

So there it is – some rambling thoughts on how to embrace failures for maximum benefit. What do you feel?

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  1. So wonderfully put Subra. “Of course, deliberating on what the mistake or failure taught us is super beneficial.”

  2. Very true. How we are conditioned to think that “failure is not an option” is a typical Indian middle class approach :-). I also liked your “but” quote. Reminded of the famous Game of Thrones HBO series quote by Ned Stark on this – Anything that comes before “but” is not counted :-).

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