By Dan Gerdes, Ph.D.
My mentor, Fred Smith Sr., used to say, “Never lose the good in a bad situation.” This is a piece of wisdom I’ve attempted to live out. While failures are seldom fun, they can be wonderful teachers if we are patient and mature enough to view them through the lens of humility. No one ever seeks out failure, but when it comes, it carries with it uniquely meaningful lessons that are experienced only through setbacks.
One day in one of my university classes, I asked my sport psychology students to come up with a list of ways that failure can be helpful. They identified 12 ways, which I’ve included below. In their fairly young lives, and limited teaching and coaching experiences, these college students had evidently experienced a variety of failures and had received some pretty good coaching and parenting to find good in the midst of bad – and sometimes painful – situations.
1. Failure usually creates humility. It’s about an improved or re-aligned perspective with what’s really going on, not what you imagine reality to be.
2. Failure found what didn’t work.
3. Failure makes work more purposeful. Experiencing setback sharpens intent and focus, efforts being performed “on purpose.”
4. Failure represents a chance to re-start.
5. Failure provides an opportunity to reflect on process vs. product.
6. Failure creates hunger to do better.
7. Failure adds value to success. Sweat equity will be that much greater and therein success will be that much sweeter when it happens.
8. Failure injects value into trial and error. It’s about learning.
9. Failure is feedback. It reveals weaknesses and suggests areas of improvement.
10. Failure allows the performer to gauge success. It’s hard to see gains without something to compare them to.
11. Failure represents an opportunity to build team. In setbacks, camaraderie can be strengthened by re-establishing core and shared values and commitments.
12. Failure challenges performers to seek partners and helpers to join arms. It’s very difficult to succeed going solo; in failure is the reality that we really need each other if we will be successful as individuals and as a team. Your talents can help me, and my talents can help you … so together we are better.
Fundamentally, using failures well represents an attitude, one focused on finishing “best” as well as finishing “first.” Finishing best is about using failures as well as successes to maximize total productive potential, rather than just the relatively small part that represents the product or outcome.
Chuck Swindoll has said, “Life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.” If we could establish the right attitude and emotional approach to failures, the threats and anxieties associated with setbacks would be much less painful and disruptive. The truth is failure helps us mature as people.
One of my favorite leaders, Winston Churchill, rallied England and her allies during WWII with such stirring quotes as, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” and “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” As leaders, avoid getting tangled up in the emotional contagion and panic of others who may not value the lessons of setbacks. It is the role of the leader to define and interpret the scenario of events and begin to set meaning to an organization’s response.
In closing, another one of my favorite leaders, Abraham Lincoln, expressed these words on the subject of failure: “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” Use failure well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Gerdes, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Missouri. He specializes in sport psychology and is the author of two books.