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A winning approach to dealing with failure

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

The business world of the 21st century is more competitive and volatile than ever, owing to technological changes, globalization and increased competitiveness.

Today's leaders must be able to manage complexity, and with that complexity recognize that failures will sometimes happen. This takes handling setbacks with humility and courage, and developing practices that increase agility and resilience.

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If your narrative as a leader only allows for success, it doesn't allow you to try anything new or take risks.

Doing the things you're already doing more efficiently works well for a while, but today's competitive market demands more than that. Organizations need the capacity to stretch, pivot, and adapt to the changes around them, or they risk becoming eclipsed by their competitors.

Here are some core leadership skills that will help you deal with failure better:

1. Separate ego from activity

This is the difference between thinking "I am a failure" and "I failed." One assigns blame and prolongs suffering, the other recognizes that a mistake happened, but it doesn't define you.

This is much easier said than done because our instinctive reaction is to become attached to our failures. "Loss aversion" – which is a well-studied neurological response to failure – says we tend to feel the pain of our losses more than the satisfaction of our gains.

Today's leaders need to learn to separate themselves from their failures – something that takes mindful awareness and an understanding of that instinctive counterproductive response – in order to learn from failures and move forward.

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2. Seek to understand

This means conducting a root-cause analysis instead of a fault-based examination. Given our fast-paced environments and pressures to react swiftly in times of crisis, our tendency is often to identify the one thing or person that caused the failure and deal with it as quickly as possible (that is, fire the person or expel the cause). This rapid response is almost always inadequate at dealing with the root cause and undermines the depth of learning that is possible. Most major failures were caused by multiple small failures over a period of time (a series of assumptions, decisions, events) and we should treat them as such.

To help you understand how you could have done things differently as a leader, try to put your ego aside and accept that your version of the story is likely incomplete. The goal is to seek out different perspectives in order to get to the root of what went wrong.

3. Share your story

This means taking responsibility for your own failures but also helping those around you listen effectively in the interest of learning. Leaders need to exemplify the corporate culture they want to see. If you want your staff to feel safe speaking candidly about their challenges, you need to be willing to do the same and acknowledge your own fallibility. Trust is built through that openness.

4. Take another shot

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Or not. Use what you learn from what doesn't work out to help determine your tactics in the future – whether that means improving what you're already doing or coming up with new ideas altogether. Maybe you learned your current approach isn't worth a second attempt. The point is to use the experience to make better choices tomorrow, which sometimes means finding the strength to let ideas go. The trick is to stay dedicated to your big-picture vision, which authorizes you to give up any of the tangible tactics that aren't working, in the interest of finding the one(s) with the strongest return on investment.

These ideas are easy to talk about in theory, but it takes practice to become good at them.

Like surfing, leadership requires strength and agility. It takes time to build the skills needed to roll with each wave. The pursuit of those skills means spending a lot of time off the board and being pummelled by waves. It takes perseverance to get over the wipe-outs, learn to read the rough seas, and make dealing with failure, change and uncertainty part of the ride.

Are you up for the challenge?

Ashley Good (@AGoodFailure) is the CEO and founder of Fail Forward (@FailForward) which supports organizations that want to learn and build resilience.

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