31 Oct 2019 18:51 IST

Failure is not a glitch; it's the best teacher

Recognising failure and learning from it, as the borewell tragedy showed, can help us emerge stronger

We were all distraught to hear the news of the failure of rescue teams to save the little boy who had fallen into an abandoned borewell in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruchirappalli. We were distressed to learn of the failure of the Chandrayaan 2 moon landing mission. Earlier this month, the once successful duo of brothers Malvinder and Shivinder Singh found themselves in jail. VG Siddhartha chose to end his life as debts and harassment overtook his ambition. In each case, there was failure. As students who have grown up in the Indian education system, we are poorly prepared for failure. The system prizes success and looks down on failures. But learning to not just handle failure but harness it is an important skill we, as developing leaders, must have.

The New York Times carried an interesting article in June 2017. “Last year, during fall orientation at Smith College, and then again recently at final-exam time, students who wandered into the campus hub were faced with an unfamiliar situation: the worst failures of their peers projected onto a large screen. “I failed my first college writing exam,” one student revealed. The faculty, too, contributed stories of screwing up. “I failed out of college,” a popular English professor wrote. “Sophomore year. Flat-out, whole semester of F’s on the transcript, bombed out, washed out, flunked out.” The presentation was part of a new initiative at Smith, “Failing Well,” that aims to destigmatise failure.”

The article quoted Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist in Smith’s Wurtele Centre for Work and Life and a kind of unofficial “failure czar” on campus.

“What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature.”

There are different ways that leaders will experience failure. We need to learn to distinguish one from the other.

Failure that is real failure

There is repeated failure of the same kind. Failure without learning. Failure without improvement. This is poor leadership. The death of Sujith, who fell into a disused borewell, was at least the 11th time in the recent past that a child died in similar circumstances. Official apathy and the indifference of individuals who dug borewell pits without covering them have caused each death. But there has been no learning. No openness to improve and change, and so the deaths continue. This type of failure is unforgivable. I’m reminded of the story of the man who showed up at work with both his ears burnt. When asked what happened he explained. “My wife left the iron next to the telephone. When the phone rang, I picked up the iron by mistake and burnt my ear.” “But what happened to the other ear?”, his friend enquired. “Well, the idiot called back.”

If we keep making the same mistake, then the failure becomes real failure because we have not used it for our growth or development.

Failure to do the right thing. Failure to stand by your convictions. Failure to be honest and transparent. These too, are fatal failures. They destroy trust, they destroy credibility. Leaders who fail in this way destroy rather than create. Shivinder Singh in a letter to his brother had said, “We’ve tried to make music together but it’s only coming out as noise.”

Failure that sows the seeds of success

British Inventor James Dyson spoke about the joy he found in one of his company’s more useless products: “Making this washing machine was the most wonderful educative failure. Success is not always as enjoyable as you might think. When something’s a success, the results are clear. Failure is an enigma. You worry about it, and it teaches you something.” Leaders must treat this kind of failure as part of the leadership journey. There is trial and error that often precedes great ideas, transformational strategies. This demonstrates a willingness to try. This shows a self-assurance that is open to taking calculated risks. This shows a passion that allows leaders to go outside their comfort zone. Here failure is really a step forward.

Stanford University faculty and short-story writer Tobias Wolff talks about his early failures as a writer and the terrible early drafts of his stories on the university website.

“If you want to call them failures, call them that. I like to call them drafts. Our life is a draft. It’s constantly in revision. We can make it better, we can maybe even make it close to something beautiful if we allow ourselves the room to do it.”

Failure that builds strength and resilience

In the movie Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale, laments his failure to save Gotham City. Alfred Pennyworth, his guardian and mentor, played by Michael Caine, asks: “Why do we fall sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” This kind of failure can strengthen us if only we have an attitude of never giving up. If we can tell ourselves that the failure is just a blip, a temporary setback, then we rise from the failure stronger and better prepared for success. Great entrepreneurial leaders find they have to pivot their business several times from failures. Each time, they and the business emerge stronger. We need to build this same attitude to failure and treat it as a tool of the leadership trade. A low tolerance for failure can lead to weak leadership muscle.

Our Advisory Board member at TalentEase and dear friend, Dr Arun Pereira, when talking about improving learning, says that most tests in academics are tests of learning. He then goes on to say that classrooms should move towards more tests for learning. To borrow that analogy, failure should be seen not as a test of leadership, which is how it is most often viewed, but as a test for leadership. It then becomes merely one more rung in the ladder to success.