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Failure is the key to great leadership

Chieu Cao
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We’re used to reading everywhere that all great leaders have the characteristics of good decision making and delegation. But what about another characteristic all great leaders have in common – failure. Contributor Chieu Cao, Cofounder and CMO – Perkbox.

Often the path to being a great leader isn’t a smooth one. In fact, it’s often our failures that teach us the most important lessons to be being great leaders. All we have to do is look at the great leaders surrounding us to see this. For example, did you know that Walt Disney’s first animation company went bankrupt? Or that at one point Steve Jobs was actually fired from Apple? But how do we embrace our failures and use them to propel us along the path of becoming great leaders?

The erroneous perception: failure is defeat
As Denis Waitley so eloquently put it: “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing”. However, for most of us, this is easier said than done. We naturally associate failure with a sense of shame and defeat. We focus our decision-making process on avoiding failure at all costs. Not only that, but we take failure personally.

If we don’t manage to do something successfully the first time around we feel like we are the failure ourselves. It’s why at Perkbox, we make a conscious effort not to fear failure but to encourage it. In fact, one of our company values is ‘try it, test it, get it done’. By altering our mindset and not taking failure personally, we can look at failure for what it is: a chance to reevaluate, reassess and ultimately grow and improve.

The right attitude: failure to become compassionate
Another positive and crucial leadership skill emerging from failure is becoming more understanding and compassionate. It makes sense – if you have experienced the feeling of failure as a leader, you are likely to better resonate with how your employees feel when things don’t go as expected. The best part – a simple gesture like this can often translates in employees wanting to go above and beyond to ensure the success of their team.

A great example of this is John Chambers, the former CEO of Cisco. He insisted to always be informed within 48 hours of any employee experiencing a severe loss or illness, regardless of their location. and once notified he would personally write a letter to extend his support to them. In this way, he instilled a top-down appreciation of the value of care and compassion throughout the company.

The biggest truth: we learn more from failure than success
This is the cold truth and also a realisation many of us don’t want to come to as we are naturally inclined to avoid failure at all costs. It’s understandable, but the reality is, failure leads to a deeper level of self-reflection that simply doesn’t come with success. It also leads us to become resilient, a skill that we will rely on again and again throughout our careers. To learn the most from our failures, we also need to be conscious of self-serving bias.

This is the tendency to see ourselves as responsible for our successes, but to see other people or circumstances as responsible for our failures. We reason this way to protect our self-esteem, and to protect our image in the eyes of others. However, it’s only by honestly assessing how your own actions contributed to the outcome that you’ll learn from your mistakes. So there you have it that’s the beauty of failure, it teaches us more about being a leader than a course, book or a podcast ever could.


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