Have you ever thought why senior leaders usually happen to be older than the average worker in a company? Is it because we just think older people are smarter than younger people? Is it because we think people naturally follow older folks rather than somebody their own age? Is it because shareholders and venture cap investors just feel more comfortable with somebody who has been around longer and they think they might be a little more careful with their money? All of these things might play a role, but I think that it is because of the massive amount of experience they have had, and even more specifically the number of failures they have had and overcome that have made them great leaders.
For an analogy let’s examine the lives of the singlehanded sailors that go around the world all on their own. These trips can be relatively boring and uneventful given the right weather situations. But more often than not, they are filled with one challenge after another. Things constantly go wrong and these need to be dealt with. The sails rip apart and need to be repaired. Lines break and need to be reconnected. Water gets into the boat and needs to be bailed out. The navigation gets messed up and work is needed to get back on course. The list could go on and on and that is why some of the most interesting books ever written are about the daily adventures of these modern day explorers. The key question here is which person would you like to have as your captain, the one who has had all smooth trips because nothing ever went wrong or the sailor who has overcome many problems and has always come home safely. Most would choose the person who has faced adversity many times and has shown the ability to always overcome these problems and learn from their mistakes.
The reason senior leaders are where they are is more about the number of failures they have experienced and have overcome than the length of time they have survived without ever having faced a difficult situation. Talk to some of the leaders in your company about their careers and note that much of what they talk about are the challenges faced, usually when they messed up, and the way they were able to bounce back, learn and grow from the experience.
There was a very interesting blog in Entrepreneur that deals with the issue of failure. I love the positive way they deal with failure and point out that failure, although once a taboo subject, has now become incredibly important for future success. Look at all the successful people that have experienced failure bumps in their careers only to have bounced back stronger than ever. I love the saying that you need to fail often in order to succeed and that success almost always follows a failure.
The story of the marketing manager called into the CEO’s office after spending $20 million on a failed launch is a classic. When the manager asked if he was going get fired the CEO responded, “Why would I fire you after I just spent $20 million on your education?”
Take some time to read over the blog and think of where you have failed over the last year. If you haven’t had many failures question yourself as to whether you took enough risk. Were you playing too careful? Were you too conservative? Too far from the cutting edge? When you have your annual review ask your boss the question as to whether you need to experiment more and take more risk. Discuss your concern that your lack of failure may be an indication that you are not pushing hard enough. Now wouldn’t that be an interesting discussion?