OK, So You Failed. Now What?
We're searching for top company cultures to be featured on our annual list. Think your company has what it takes? Apply Now »
January was a tough month for sports fans in my home state of Colorado. On January 11, in front of a shocked, sold-out stadium, the Denver Broncos lost the AFC playoffs to the Indianapolis Colts, 24-to-13. Coloradans had barely recovered from the Broncos’ spectacular 2014 Super Bowl loss, and not getting to play in the 2015 game seemed incomprehensible.
Back at Broncos headquarters, General Manager John Elway shared this bewilderment, remarking, “I don’t know why we didn’t have more fire.”
Now, Elway’s team is at a crossroads. What should the Broncos do next? And what can leaders learn about bouncing back from failure?
1. Failure is a likely outcome of any risk.
Recently, an aspiring author asked me, “How have you become such a successful writer in such a short time?” I think my response surprised her: I burst out laughing. Like most writers, for every success, I've experience at least ten failures: Ten bad ideas for every good one. Ten nonproductive minutes of writing, for every productive one. Ten rejections for every acceptance. But she doesn’t see my failures -- she just sees my (completely nonrepresentative) successes.
When we fail at something, it’s easy to look around and conclude that everyone else is winning while we are losing. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Even the most successful among us fail every day.
Take Zhang Xin, a renowned, self-made Chinese billionaire. She transcended her humble beginnings as a factory worker in Beijing to become a real estate magnate worth more than Oprah Winfrey. And, she reports, “I fail every day. It appears to [others] that [my business is] doing quite well, but … we’re still having challenges every day. That’s just life.”
Even British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, considered one of history’s greatest leaders, had a long list of spectacular failures: His abysmal 1915 Gallipoli campaign, his disastrous Gold Standard budget, his calamitous invasion of Norway. Given the very nature of the risky decisions he had to make, there was no prayer of perfection. The more you succeed, the more you’ll fail. Period.
Here’s the point: Failure is a basic element of the human experience. It happens to everyone. You’re not alone. So, the first thing you must remember is: Don’t beat yourself up. It’s just life.
2. Failure doesn’t guarantee learning.
Think of the last time you failed—what was your first reaction? Perhaps you felt embarrassed or upset. Maybe you wanted to downplay the failure or blame others. Science tells us that such biases and knee-jerk reactions can impede our ability to learn from our mistakes.
Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the train wreck that is Dov Charney, former CEO of American Apparel. Charney was recently ousted from the company he founded out of his college dorm room. For years, his sexually inappropriate behavior was the company’s worst-kept secret. He would wander the office in his underwear. He admitted to sexual relationships with female employees as young as 18. And, starting in 2011, he faced multiple sexual harassment lawsuits. At one point, he even acknowledged that he had a problem.
Many wondered why Charney hadn't been fired sooner. I think there’s a more intriguing question: Why on earth didn’t Charney wise up and change his behavior? The writing was clearly on the wall. He just couldn’t -- or wouldn’t -- read it. In fact, like a bad ex-boyfriend who can’t take a hint, he’s still trying to get the company to hire him back! Talk about not learning from failure. (Face palm.)
Charney’s story is a dramatic reminder that failure doesn’t earn us automatic wisdom. Instead, we must engage in a deliberate process to examine it. So, the next time you fail, have your own FailCon. Ask, What went wrong? What factors did I not take into account? What assumptions was I making that turned out to be incorrect? What could I have done differently?
To paraphrase Henry Ford, the only real failure happens when you don’t learn from it.
3. "Failure" means an automatic reset.
J.K. Rowling, the best-selling author of the Harry Potter series, believes her biggest failure was the seed of her success. Rowling has said she hit rock bottom when she found herself an unemployed, divorced, single mother. Did she become afraid or hopeless? Probably yes, initially. But, ultimately, she decided that her failure meant “a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than I was.”
In most cases, failure is an automatic reset button. On our goals. On our behaviors. On our attitude. It purges all of the nonsense and gets us back to what truly matters. And, typically, the more epic the failure, the more powerful the reset.
Let’s turn back to the Broncos. Like Rowling, they’ve probably hit rock bottom. As a result, this season’s oppressive expectations won’t spill over into next season, (This year, “Super Bowl or bust” was the motto on the field, and sports anchors touted the team's expected Super Bowl victory before the pre-season had even begun.)
I’d wager that these expectations were a burden for the Broncos, a team whose members used to relish their position as underdogs. This season, they struggled from week to week and seemed to be having less fun. Perhaps this season’s failure will help them get back to what made them great -- so they can get the fire back.
In the movie Apollo 13, Ed Harris’s character famously declares, “Failure is not an option.” That might have been true for his crew, but failure is also an inevitable part of life. And whether you’re an NFL executive, a CEO, a politician, or anyone else, the failure you experience will be far less important than what you choose to do next.