An Article By Ian Kilbride.
South Africa’s excellent business schools play a vital role in teaching and building a cohort of young people to take up leadership roles in our incredibly complex and demanding economy. But while the overarching objective of business schools is to teach success (of course), I am also struck by the need for us to also help young businesspeople deal with failure.
Failure is not to be feared, but rather viewed as an eventual pathway to success. In fact, in my view, avoiding failure leads to a life devoid of risk and real achievement. Understandably, success is celebrated, but the often-rocky path leading to its final achievement is seldom analysed. Doing so, would be of greater value than the comfortable belief and popular perception that success is something that simply happens over time.
To the contrary, some of the world’s most successful people have one unexpected thing in common: failure. The list of historic ‘failures’ is a who’s who of phenomenal success overcoming adversity. Indeed, some of the greatest figures of our time in all walks of life have experienced profound and sometimes chronic and repeated failure, before achieving their epic success.
One of the more interesting takes on failure was delivered by Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, in her Harvard ‘commencement’ address, when, as one of the most successful and richest females on the planet, she recalled her own trials and tribulations. Rowling noted her abject failure at ‘all other things’ then allowed her to focus precisely on what she was good at, writing epically imaginative fantasy novels that have taken the world by storm.
Our very own Nelson Mandela was a law student at Wits between 1943-1949 during which he failed his final exams three times. Madiba was in good company though, as the genius Albert Einstein failed the entrance exam to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic and later turned to selling insurance door-to-door simply to make ends meet. Britain’s greatest Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, failed the Sandhurst Military Academy entrance exam twice and later as a politician lost no less than five elections. Thomas Edison tested the electric lightbulb 10,000 times before achieving his own lightbulb moment. Bill Gates’s first company was an abysmal failure, before achieving massive global success with Microsoft. Walt Disney’s early failures left him bankrupt. Even today, both Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk continue to experience failures in their quest to push the envelope of space exploration and adventure.
But why is failure so important to success?
In the first instance, failure is not just a great leveller, but also a phenomenal teacher. “Learning through the school of hard knocks” is a phrase often used by working class people in the north of England and underlying this is a deeper appreciation of the importance of failure in building true character, particularly when facing adversity. By character, I mean of the sort that prepares one for the predations of personal and business life. Failure also builds resilience. The resilience borne of failure tempers any naïve belief in ‘quick successes, but rather prepares one for what is often a long and arduous process that, with application and endurance, may eventually give rise to success.
While failure is painful, the determination to avoid its repetition forces one to reflect on its specific causes. The first-hand experience of failure forms a knowledge bank that can be drawn upon to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
But for failure to become a positive factor leading to success requires at least two key factors. The first is a comprehensive, honest self-analysis of the causes and responsibility for the failure. Sometimes failure is simply out of one’s control and like Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’, you have to accept that you cannot control all factors all of the time. Conversely, however, success is built upon minimising the failure factors that you can control and then building and consolidating the success factors you can control. The second is the formulation of an appropriate response and plan of action emerging from failure that leads future success. Here, not only is self-belief a critical factor, but also the capacity to calmly and deliberately devise and build a plan that casts off the dust of failure and burnishes a new beginning.
Of course, one of the toughest challenges to deal with is the reputational damage caused by failure. Far too often, failure is an orphan and success has many Fathers. And this is why family is so important in one’s personal life and having a talented and committed team is vital to success in business.
In my career I have come to believe in the mantra that, “A man who has never failed has never really tried to succeed and he makes a poor business partner.”
So, I think it’s time for us to be brave enough to teach young people never to fear failure – it is their route to success!