15 Aug 2017 17:09 IST

The Wallenda factor

Leaders look at failure not as a daunting outcome, but as a step to success

The Wallenda family is well-known for their daredevil circus act, which includes performing dangerous stunts — such as walking on a high-rise tight rope, often without a safety net.

Karl Wallenda, a German-American high-wire artiste founded the Flying Wheels and performed the act with perfection for many years. His life was at risk every time he walked on the tight rope, but he firmly believed that, “Tight-rope walking is living and everything else is dying!”

However, he fell to his death while crossing a 75-foot high tight rope between two hotels in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1978. His wife, also an aerialist, discussed that fateful walk, which, she said, was “Perhaps his most dangerous.” She recalled, “All Karl thought about for three straight months prior to it was falling. It was the first time he had ever thought about that and it seemed to me that he put all his energies into not falling rather than walking the tightrope.”

She added that her husband even went so far as to personally supervise the installation of the tightrope, making certain that the guide wires were secure. “Something he had never even thought of doing before.”

Looking at failure

Wallenda’s life offers a lesson or two for leaders and leaders-to-be. The Wallenda factor is primarily concerned with one’s perception of the outcome of the event. The attitude of successful leaders towards failure is completely different, and you can observe this not only in their words, but also in their actions. They tend to view their failures as ‘false starts’, ‘stumbles’, or ‘steps to greatness’.

It is not as though they are overconfident or underestimate the chances of the risk of failure. They simply do not focus on it, and view it merely as a stepping-stone to success. This shows that leaders are perpetual learners.

They regard learning as the octane fuel that keeps the momentum going by sparking new understanding, new ideas, and new challenges. Just as a child emulates a parent, when a leader continuously learns from the environment, others will emulate her/him too.

Learning environment

Leaders redesign their organisations to be both participative and anticipative. They listen to cues in the environment and subtle messages from the people in their organisations. They are acutely self-aware, and know their limitations. Leaders of today and tomorrow know that they do not have all the answers. So, they ask questions and learn from the people around them. They do not suffer from, what Dr Peter Drucker refers to as, the ‘ignorance of arrogance’.

They also anticipate what can go wrong, even if the environment appears to be stable, and prepare for the outcomes. They know they cannot do it alone, which is why they build strategic networking skills to make sense and meaning of what is happening around them.

Building resilience

Leaders are good at managing the paradox of confronting the current reality while exploring future possibility. Setbacks and failures do not break leaders. They cultivate the resilience to recover from these odds. The key to Wallenda factor happens at the interaction of the three behaviours — attitudes, habits and responses.

Self-knowledge, self-acceptance and optimism are the attitudes required for resilience. Learning from experience and building relationships with people constitute habits. Finally, finding a purpose, taking control and asking for help is the response.

The good news is that resilience can be learnt. This is one of the decisive factors for leadership success.