Have you failed today?

Who is this?

• Lost job, 1832
• Defeated for legislature, 1832
• Failed in business, 1833
• Elected to legislature, 1834
• Sweetheart (Ann Rutledge) died, 1835
• Had nervous breakdown, 1836
• Defeated for Speaker, 1838
• Defeated for nomination for Congress, 1843
• Elected to Congress, 1846
• Lost renomination, 1848
• Rejected for Land Officer, 1849
• Defeated for Senate, 1854
• Defeated for nomination for Vice-President, 1856
• Again defeated for Senate, 1858
• Elected President, 1860

Of course it is Abraham Lincoln, world champion at failing forward but perhaps better known as one of the US’s greatest presidents as judged by historians. But would we know who Abraham Lincoln was, if he stopped at his first failure? Second failure? Third failure? Fourth failure? Nope! Not only did Lincoln learn from his failure but he went on to make even bigger failures until he had ultimate success as being elected President of the United States, reelected, and saving the Union.

Lincoln has not been alone at failing.

Big companies that went bankrupt:
1. Quaker Oats (3 times)
2. Pepsi-Cola (3 times)
3. Birds Eye Frozen Foods
4. Borden’s
5. Aunt Jemima
6. Wrigley’s (3 times)
7. Henry Ford (personally 2 or 3 times, the record is not clear)

If this is true my question for you is,

Have you or your company failed today?

The last time you were at Starbucks did you read the latest issue of Joe Magazine? You didn’t? Well, Joe was a magazine that Starbuck’s founder Howard Schultz created a few years back. It failed miserably because in Schultz’s own words, “Nobody read it”. However, if you ever have the privilege to enter the Schultz’s office you will see racks of issues of Joe. Why? “ . . . .we should not hide behind our mistakes . . . I keep that there as a memento . . . but sometimes to have the courage fail.”

The importance of having a tolerance for failure on the individual as well as the firm level is not new. The evidence is pretty clear. So why am I talking about it here? Two reasons, first, managers don’t really believe it and their behavior demonstrates this and second, failure and tolerance for failure is so important for the entrepreneurial process, the opportunity development process and ultimately, the value-creating process that I’m taking this space to present it to you in a slightly different way. My fingers are crossed, hoping you will believe it this time.

The McKinsey Award is awarded by a panel of judges annually to the best article of the year. In 2002 it was award to Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes for their article titled, The Failure-Tolerant Leader. One truism from this important article is that while it is one thing to understand the importance of failure in the abstract, it is a whole other thing to really believe it a deep personal level. I would add it is as difficult or even more difficult to believe this at the organizational wide. Despite this, managers and companies that are successful over the long haul are tolerant and expectant of failure. Moreover to many, failure is associated with losers, when in fact you should associate it more with winners.

Failure is not an option . . . Sometimes,
it’s a prerequisite of success.
(A Young Presidents Organization ad)

Shocked? In this success-oriented culture, we rarely focus much attention on failure other than it is something to avoid. However, failure is important for innovative, creative and value creating organizations. If any significant progress is made either personally or in business, failure is almost a requirement.

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