How You Respond to Failure Defines You as a Leader
Every one of us experiences failures and faces adversities. Our response defines us as a leader. The great and influential leaders were no strangers to failure. My research illustrates that most experienced levels of failure and adversity that would compel typical individuals to pack their bags and quit in frustration and disappointment.
The levels of success they achieved did not come easily, but they were persistent. Their personal levels of perseverance and self-reliance are what realistically defined them. Most viewed failure as a learning experience, rather than a defining event. Fred Smith (FedEx) observed, “Just because an idea isn’t implemented or doesn’t work out doesn’t mean that a person has failed.” 
Early in his career at Johnson & Johnson, General Robert Wood Johnson taught James Burke a valuable lesson about failure. “Shortly after he arrived at J&J in 1953 as a product director after three years at Procter & Gamble, Burke attempted to market several over-the-counter medicines for children. They all failed-and he was called in for a meeting with the chairman.
‘I assumed I was going to be fired,’ Burke recalls. ‘But instead, Johnson told me, ‘Business is all about making decisions, and you don’t make decisions without making mistakes. Don’t make that mistake again, but please be sure you make others.’”
In 2001, John Chambers (Cisco) saw his company’s revenues and stock price fall off the cliff during the tech and telecom busts. He was challenged with the reality of massive and likely fatal failure. “Within days of realizing Cisco was crashing, Chambers leapt into trying to fix it. ‘He never dwelled on it,’ says Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM (IBM) … ‘John kept the company focused. He said this is where we are, and he drove the company forward.’
He reached out to [Jack] Welch (General Electric) and a handful of other CEOs. They told him that sudden downturns always take companies by surprise, ‘so I should quit beating myself up for being surprised,’ Chambers recalls. He did. Chambers decided that the free fall had been beyond his control. He now wraps it up in an analogy he retells time and again, likening the crash to a disastrous flood: It rarely happens, but when it does, there’s nothing you can do to stop it… Those other CEOs also told Chambers to figure out how bad it was going to get, take all the harsh action necessary to get through it and plan for the eventual upturn.” 
David Packard (Hewlett-Packard) faced failure and adversity in a gruff and straightforward manner. “When he returned to HP in the early 1970s after his stint as deputy secretary of defense and found the company on the verge of borrowing $100 million to cover a cash-flow shortage, he immediately met with employees and gave them what came to be known as a ‘Dave Gives ‘Em Hell’ speech. Packard lined up the division managers in front of employees and told them, ‘If they don’t get inventories under control, they’re not going to be your managers for very long.’ Within six months, the company once again had positive cash flow, to the tune of $40 million.” 
John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil) advised, “‘Look ahead… Be sure that you are not deceiving yourself at any time about actual conditions.’ He notes that when a business begins to fail, most men hate ‘to study the books and face the truth.” 
-  Federal Express’s Fred Smith (Inc. Magazine, October 1, 1986)
 Alumni Achievement Awards: James E. Burke (Harvard Business School, 2003)
 Maney Kevin, Chambers, Cisco Born Again (USA Today, January 21, 2004)
 O’Hanlon Charlene, David Packard: High-Tech Visionary (CRN, November 8, 2000)
 Baida Peter, Rockefeller Remembers (American Heritage Magazine, September/October 1988, Volume 39, Issue 6)
Excerpt: Great! What Makes Leaders Great, What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Majorium Business Press, Stevens Point, WI, 2011) Read a FREE Chapter.
Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D. | Author | Publisher | Majorium Business Press
Author of Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Finalist – 2011 Foreword Reviews‘ Book of the Year)
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