Picking yourself up. Getting back on the horse. Shaking it off. In many of life’s situations, people will offer up a torrent of tired clichés about how we should recover after a mistake or failure. Usually this forms a vague suggestion that we should learn from these experiences so that we can come back stronger (another cliché) from an inevitable knock-back.
This advice has the benefit of being well-meaning and almost certainly true, yet is also completely useless on its own. Learning from a failure is often far easier said than done because it typically must happen while you are still coping with the fallout of the failure itself. In a professional setting, this might be the financial implications of a failed venture, or the hit to your pride and reputation following a poor business decision. You are probably least inclined to listen to advice from others and you are likely in no mood to start turning those lemons into lemonade.
As a leader, a setback can be particularly painful. The consequences might be far-reaching – touching many people, with potentially serious consequences. You’re also a visible figurehead that the rest of the organisation looks to. This means that not only are you seen during these difficult moments, but you’re also held accountable for them – whether or not responsibility actually lies with you.
Notwithstanding the difficulties, leaders can gain a great deal from these times. The real challenge is to break through the inevitable early inertia and start analysing the failure through a methodical and clinical approach. Taking the knee-jerk emotion out of the situation and considering it as coldly as possible is the best way to see through the immediate sense of chaos and locate the lessons it might teach you.
Many successful leaders do this by embarking on the exact same process of debriefing for every project, whether they were a raging success or an abysmal failure. By progressing through a deep analysis to investigate every process and action, a company can gain valuable lessons from any situation. It might show that catastrophe could be avoided with better early-stage planning, or that a market wasn’t yet ready for a particular product. It may equally suggest that a success was as much a result of fortunate timing and favourable trading as it was about good judgment. Each case would require the leader to take action to see improvements.
Take the classic “getting back on the horse” as a literal example. When you’re staring up at the sky after a horse has thrown you, it arguably isn’t actually enough to simply jump back in the saddle. It definitely shows courage, but it also risks repeating the error. Reflecting on the incident systematically to identify what went wrong is a better way to improve your next attempt. You might conclude that: a. my technique is lacking, b. I did something I shouldn’t, or c. this horse is genuinely trying to kill me. Your discovery of these alternatives can then inform your next attempt and should make for a better equestrian experience (though if it is option c, I propose taking up cycling).
As with the horse metaphor, an understandable consequence of failure is a loss of confidence and an increased aversion to risk. This is why it is important to make sure that, once handled, the setback is set aside. Leaders can do this best by ensuring that lessons learnt have produced real and tangible improvements – effectively creating a “win” in terms of the new insights they have gained into parts of their business.
Being prepared for failure might appear to run slightly counter to the usually aspirational tone of a lot of business advice. Unlike many of the clichés however, “hope for the best, plan for the worst” has the considerable advantage of actually producing practical results – a great help when you’re looking to “bounce back”.
Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.
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