Episode: How to Fail Better

Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.

Megan Hyatt Miller: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.

Michael:  And this is Lead to Win, the weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. In this episode, we’re talking about failure and how to learn from it.

Megan: I hate failing. Don’t you?

Michael: I do. I like winning. Winning is my favorite.

Megan: Given the choice, I would choose winning. Unfortunately, it’s pretty common, and we’re all going to do it. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s super frustrating and irritating when it happens. In fact, it can even be discouraging and humiliating. I know I often have felt that way when I’ve been in that situation.

Maybe this is just how I’m uniquely wired, but when I have a big failure, it can really create a sense of self-doubt and I can go into what my husband affectionately calls my “doom loop,” where it becomes a sense of global self-doubt. It can be really hard, but I think the antidote to that, instead of making it personal, is remembering there are important lessons that only failure can teach us that we need and to learn those lessons. Failure can actually kind of become a friend in a way.

Michael: That’s right. What we’re not going to be talking about in this episode is how to avoid failure, because you’re going to have failure. Until you can learn to process failure in a healthy way, you can’t deal with it in a powerful way. So we want to get explicit about it. We have Larry here with us today. Larry, welcome.

Megan: Hey, Larry.

Larry Wilson: Hey, guys. I want to sort of prove the thesis right off the bat, which is that you can learn from setbacks and failures if you’ll allow yourself to. So, give me an example. What have you learned from a failure?

Megan: Well, I could draw on a number of examples, and that’s probably true for all of us, but one that comes to mind is last year we decided to expand a certain part of our business. We had been searching for a while for the right person to lead that initiative, and we thought we found just the right person. As we’ve talked about many times on the podcast, we have a very thorough hiring process, and he had done really well throughout all of the parts of the process.

One of the things we do is we use an assessment called the Kolbe Assessment. The thing is it basically helps you to assess the right fit of a person within an organization, particularly within their position. Are they naturally hardwired to perform well in the role? Well, this person came to us very highly recommended, had many wonderful accomplishments in his past, but he didn’t quite meet the criteria this test outlined.

Anyway, as a result, I consulted with Kolbe about it, and I said, “You know, I just really feel like he’s the right person, but I don’t know that these things are matching up.” So we started talking about it. Basically, what I didn’t realize at the time was what I was doing was engaging them in kind of enabling me to rationalize the wrong hire. For a number of reasons, I thought he was the right guy. I really, really liked him.

Unfortunately, he got in the role, and what was true on the test turned out to be true in real life, and he was just not the right fit for the role, even though he’s a fantastic guy who we really liked. As a result, there were major financial consequences to that. The growth we had projected in this new part of our business that we were expanding into just didn’t happen.

It was so disappointing, and the worst thing about it was it was my own failure. I thought I was smarter than the test, which, as a general rule, is not a great strategy. I got the opportunity to learn some painful lessons. I think the only thing that makes me feel better about that is that there are lessons to be learned that I can take with me, and that will be the gift that keeps on giving even beyond the failure. So I’m heartened by that, but it was a painful lesson.

Larry: Failure will make you a better leader if you make the decision you’ve made, which is to learn from it. That’s what we’re talking about today. We want to share six actions you can take to learn from a failure or setback in your business life or even in your personal life. The first one is acknowledge the failure.

Michael: This sounds simple, but it’s harder than it looks. Our tendency is to gloss over it, to try to make it better than it was or better than it is. It’s a little bit like trying to put lipstick on a pig. It’s still going to be a pig. At some point, you just have to declare that there was a failure. That’s not being negative. That’s being honest with the situation.

As leaders, we have to be able to do that, and I think it’s especially important, if we’re going to have integrity with our teams, that when something crashes and burns, when something is a setback or a failure… First of all, everybody else knows it, so by trying to deny it or ignore it or hope nobody else notices, that’s not healthy for the organization. You want to build resilience into your team, and resilience starts by acknowledging the failure. It’s important for your team. It’s important for yourself.

Larry: Failing to acknowledge failure has consequences for the organization, as you just pointed out. What about for the individual? What does it do inside of you when you don’t acknowledge your own failures?

Megan: Well, I think you know you’re lying to yourself. It creates an internal conflict around what obviously happened and what you’re telling yourself about what happened. You kind of undermine trust with yourself.

Michael: Confidence.

Megan: Yeah, your own confidence. You don’t have the kind of insight and visibility you need to make better choices in the future. It’s kind of nothing but bad.

Michael: Another thing that happens with acknowledging it and saying it out loud is it kind of takes the scope, the bigness of the failure out of it. It enables you to better contextualize it and give it the right proportion. Most of the failures we have in life are not catastrophic. They’re recoverable.

Megan: That’s true.

Michael: In fact, I would say you (I’ve observed this in your life) have made it through every failure you’ve ever experienced, and, Larry, the same thing is true for you. You’re sitting here today. You’ve lived through every failure you’ve ever experienced, and the same is true for me. I think it helps us by saying it out loud. It’s only ultimately a failure if we don’t acknowledge it and don’t move on from there.

Larry: The first action to learn from failures and setbacks is to acknowledge the failure. The second action is to take full responsibility.

Megan: This is a big one. You have to take responsibility, because if you don’t, you’ll undermine others’ trust in you, you’ll undermine your trust in yourself, and, again, you won’t have the opportunity to benefit from the lessons that can be learned that will enable you to not repeat those same mistakes later.

The truth is weak leaders blame other people for their failures and great leaders own their failures. If you can think of historical examples or great leaders you’ve personally known, probably the moments of your greatest respect for them were when they took really hard responsibility for some kind of a failure at great cost to themselves.

Larry: You remind me of John Kennedy who, in a press conference the very day after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, said, “I’m the responsible officer of the government.” He stood right up there and owned it after a disastrous military operation. He took full responsibility.

Megan: Such a great story. I think that’s because blame is disempowering. If there’s one thing you can’t be as a great leader it’s disempowered. Taking ownership enables you to be empowered.

Michael: It does, and it builds credibility with your team, too, when you take full responsibility. Obviously, they’re blaming you, as the leader, so you might as well own it and accept it for yourself. The truth is if you’re the leader you are responsible, but you’re only responsible if you retain your ability to respond.

If I give that over to the environment or the weather or blaming other people, or whatever, that’s not responsibility. I’ve taken away my own responsibility. I’ve become the victim. You can’t be a victim and a leader at the same time. Those are mutually exclusive. You can be a leader or you can be a victim. You can’t be both.

Megan: That’s really good.

Larry: To learn from your failures and setbacks, first, acknowledge the failure; secondly, take full responsibility; thirdly, mourn the failure.

Michael: I want to say a word about this, because I think it’s easy, particularly for those of us who have been raised on motivational books and motivational talks and positive thinking and all the rest, to kind of gloss over the whole thing and not give ourselves space to mourn. I can remember, back in the mid-90s, I was fired by a very important client. It was like a gut kick. I can remember the emotional impact, and I can feel it even to this day.

I remember for two or three weeks just walking around in a stupor. I couldn’t believe this had happened to me. I just had to mourn it. I had to recognize that this was a loss, and any loss takes time to heal. It doesn’t help if you try to bury it or gloss over it. It’s just going to come up in unpredictable, unhealthy ways at a later time.

For me… I give this advice to people. Sometimes you just have to cry. Sometimes you just have to sit with yourself and be sad, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be sad forever. It doesn’t mean you’re going to lose control of yourself and weep forever, but it does mean… In fact, I would say that helps you process the emotion of it and helps you recognize the loss for what it is.

Megan: That’s a really important point. I was actually talking about this in therapy last week, now that I’m thinking about it. Just as a leader…

Michael: Wait. You’re in therapy?

Megan: Totally. Aren’t you in therapy?

Michael: I’m not right now.

Megan: Therapy is great.

Michael: It is.

Megan: I’m so grateful for it. I’ve done it on and off for a long, long time. Anyway, I was talking about the pressure of being a leader, and one of the things that I think leaders face is there’s a need to kind of have a lid on your emotions all the time, because you have to be professional. You have to be the steadying force. It doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions; it just means you can’t give expression to them, necessarily, in every situation you’re in. It wouldn’t be appropriate.

But if you never give expression to them when it is appropriate, like in private or with people who are your peers, it’s really, really tough. If you try to sort of metabolize failure after failure and if you’re taking a lot of risks and you have a company that’s growing or a role that’s growing, you’re going to fail plenty. It can almost feel like it’s imploding in you. You have to be able to get that out and process it so you can not only learn from it but stay in a healthy emotional state of not having so much stuff stuck inside of you.

Michael: I want to go back to therapy for a second. We kind of made light of it, but I think it’s really important, particularly if you’re in a time of transition or a time of real change or if you’ve had a setback. You need somebody who’s professional-grade who can help you process that so you deal with it in a healthy way and so it doesn’t come back in unhealthy ways to bite you.

I’ve done that at various points in my career, and it has been enormously helpful. It has been, I think, the secret to me being as resilient as I’ve been. I’ve had somebody to help me to think through it so I can regain my sense of perspective, my equilibrium, and get moving forward again and not stay stuck in the past.

Larry: Would you say that acknowledging the failure and mourning it helped you move beyond it or does the mourning…? I mean, is there a danger of getting stuck there?

Michael: I don’t think the danger is in getting stuck if you mourn; I think the danger is in getting stuck if you don’t mourn. There may be some exceptions to that. I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve seen a lot more problems from people trying to gloss it over than people who actually mourn it.

Megan: Well, then it can kind of come out sideways, where you double down on your ambition or you try to medicate in ways that aren’t healthy. Those kinds of things can happen, and that’s what you don’t want to have happen. You want to move through it.

Larry: Let’s move to the fourth action you can take to learn from your setbacks and failures. That is, obviously enough, to learn from the experience.

Michael: You definitely want to get there, but, again, I would caution people about getting there too quickly. I think this goes much better if you’ve had a chance to mourn it and process the emotion of it, and as we’re helping people on our team process failure, we have to be sure we give them space to mourn it, and then we can help them turn the corner. Speaking from experience, you can try to do that too fast. “What did you learn from that?” “It just happened yesterday. Okay? I’m still trying to assess it. Give me a little space.”

Megan: Nothing will make me want to punch somebody in the face more than that. Don’t rush me.

Michael: That’s true. There are some questions we can ask ourselves. We’ve used this question many times on this podcast: “What was it about my leadership that produced this result?” In fairness, I want to credit Ilene Muething from Gap International who gave me that question. Powerful question. “What was it about my leadership that produced this result?”

Here’s another one: “What does this make possible, especially in my personal growth?” Most of the bad experiences I’ve had in my life, including my business failure, I wouldn’t want to trade that experience for anything in the world. I also wouldn’t want to repeat it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn from it. I learned some of the most important lessons I ever learned.

Megan: By the way, that’s one you have to be really careful not to ask too soon. That’ll get you punched in the face too.

Michael: Here’s another one. I like to ask, “What is missing?” rather than “What’s wrong?” “What’s wrong?” has a whole layer of…

Megan: It feels kind of blamey.

Michael: Yeah. But to ask, “What was missing?” That’s something I can be more objective about. “What can I learn from this experience?” Be specific. This is why I journal. I actually have this question in the journal. “What did I learn? How can this learning make me a better leader?” and even, “How can this learning make our company stronger?”

Megan: This reminds me a little bit of the after-action review we often use with our coaching clients. Maybe that would be a good resource to explain a little bit about.

Michael: Yeah. We go through a process when we have an event, when we have a major initiative, where we go through an after-action review, which is something we learned from the United States army. They have a very formal process with this, but here’s what it looks like for us. We’ve boiled it down to what we call the KISS methodology, but it’s not KISS like you normally think of it, like, “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

This one is “What do I want to keep doing?” In other words, out of this experience, there were probably some things that were good that I want to keep doing. That’s the K. Then the I stands for, “What do I want to improve?” There were some things we did that were okay, but we want to improve them next time we go through this.

Then the first S stands for start. “What do I want to start doing that I didn’t do?” Next time we do this initiative, next time we do this project, here’s what we want to start doing. Then, “What do we want to stop doing?” What do we never want to repeat again or never do in the future? That kind of after-action review gives you an opportunity, with a very formal process, to work through it, make sure you think through all aspects of it, and, like a lemon, squeeze as much juice out of it as you can.

Larry: I’d like to point out, too, for users of the Full Focus Planner, this is built right into the weekly preview. “What worked and what didn’t?” Tough question to answer some weeks, and then, “What am I going to do differently in the future?”

Megan: I love that.

Michael: It’s also built into the quarterly preview, which happens at the end of the planner.

Larry: Let’s move to the fifth action you can take to learn from setbacks and failures: change your behavior.

Megan: This is so important. It goes back to my example I gave at the beginning of the show about the hiring. I had another situation come up just this last week. We’re hiring for another position, and we’ve had a really hard time finding candidates. We’ve had a lot of candidates who have applied, but we haven’t had any candidates yet who have applied with a Kolbe score that matches the position.

So the conversation internally this week was like, “Well, maybe the score is wrong. Maybe we should reevaluate it.” I was like, “No, no, no. I’ve seen this movie before. It doesn’t end well. Let’s not do that again.” I think the lesson is to be patient, to trust the process, to trust the science behind that, because the truth is we’ve had so many phenomenal hires with that being part of our process. Here, presented with an almost identical situation to the one I failed at, I need to put those lessons to work and make the changes necessary to not repeat my failures again.

Larry: It’s kind of amazing how tempting it is to repeat the same mistake.

Megan: Right.

Michael: It is. I think that’s why if we’re not self-aware, if we’re not deliberate, if we don’t go through a very specific process, like we’re outlining here, we might repeat it again. We all have friends like this who just can’t seem to get out of their own way. They keep repeating the same old things, and it’s like, “How many times do you have to go through this before you’re going to learn?” I don’t know. I feel like when I touch a hot stove, I learn. Some of the things I’ve gone through have been so painful that I never want to repeat those again. You have to change your behavior. Otherwise, you’re going to keep getting the same result.

Larry: I’m reminded of the quote by George Santayana who essentially said, “Those who cannot learn from history are destined to repeat it.” We could say, “Leaders who cannot learn from their mistakes are destined to repeat them.” Let’s move to the sixth and final step in learning from setbacks and failures (we’ll review all six of the steps in just a minute): enter wholeheartedly into the next project. Why is this so important?

Michael: This is why you have to process failure. Failure dings your confidence, and when you’re less confident, you’re less likely to be ambitious and to dream big. You want to be able to enter into the next project not only with a big dream and a big goal, but you want to give it your all. You don’t want to be holding yourself back. It’s a little bit like if you’ve ever had an injury, and then you tend to favor that injury and not give yourself fully…

Even to this day, because I broke my ankle falling down some steps, when I go down steps I’m very aware that I could fall, so I always grab the railing when I walk down steps. You don’t want to always be grabbing the railing when you’re pressing forward in life and taking on the next project. You want to have full confidence, be able to give expression to your ambition, and really tackle it full-on. Another story. When I was a kid, my dad bought me a pony. Have I ever told you this story, Megan?

Megan: I don’t think so.

Michael: I think I only rode it a couple of times. So, we went out to my uncle’s house where the pony was, and they put me in a freshly plowed field where the dirt was soft and everything. So they put me on the horse, and, of course, the horse ran out from under me, and I fell right on my butt. I wasn’t hurt, but I was crying. I must have been 5 or 6 years old.

My dad picked me up and put me right back on the horse. That’s how you want it to be for you. You want to get back on the horse. That’s the value of doing a process like this. Even if it feels a little bit formal or formulaic, go through the process, because you want to get back on that horse and be able to ride it with confidence.

Larry: You literally have a story about getting back on the horse.

Megan: How many people can say that?

Michael: I’m old enough. Maybe it originally started with me.

Megan: The other thing to remember, as we’re thinking about having processed failure and now we’re going to go try something again with that in our history, is that it can really make us cautious. It can make us feel fearful, almost like PTSD. This is why, like you said, it’s so important to process it, because the fear can creep in, and it can pull us back just at the moment when we need to let the reigns out, actually. When our business depends on our courage, we remember that failure, all of a sudden, in the back of our mind, in our memory, and we kind of hit the brakes.

That’s just not what we want to do. Usually, fear is not going to lead us to make good decisions. If it makes us wise and aware of things that maybe previously we wouldn’t have thought to contingency plan around, that can be good, but if we’re truly living out of fear, we’re not going to be able to wholeheartedly engage in the next project, and that’s what we want to avoid. It’s something to be alert to in yourself if you’re far enough down the road where you have some failures in your history.

Larry: Well, today we’ve learned that failure isn’t fatal, especially for a leader, and you can learn from your failures and setbacks, grow from them, and profit from them if you will allow yourself to do that. Six actions that will help you:

  1. Acknowledge the failure.
  2. Take full responsibility.
  3. Mourn the failure.
  4. Learn from the experience.
  5. Change your behavior.
  6. Enter wholeheartedly into the next project.

So helpful, guys. Thank you for that. Any final thoughts to add here?

Megan: It’s easy to think the goal of leadership is to never fail. Wouldn’t that be nice? But so often, our failures hold the seeds of our greatest successes. I know that has been true in my life. Dad, I think that has probably been true in your life.

Michael: Definitely true.

Megan: While we never would want to repeat our most painful failures, I think most of us can look back with gratitude and be thankful for the opportunity to learn in those situations and see a direct relationship between those failures and what we’ve been able to accomplish now because of what we learned.

Michael: Hard things are really underrated, yet if we think of the people we really admire, the people we really respect, the people who really make the biggest impact in the world, they’re not the people who are the sudden successes or just famous. They’re people who have gone through really difficult times. Suffering is what perfects our character, and failure is a form of suffering. It’s a form of feedback that can not only inform our experience and our knowledge going forward but can shape our character.

At the end of the day, it’s the shape of our character that’s going to have the biggest impact in the world. Not what we know, not what we create, but the very force of our character. That’s not easily won. That’s going to come through setbacks. I just think we can’t resent those things, but we have to be able to process them and use them so we can reach our full potential and become all that we were created to be.

Larry: Michael and Megan, very practical and inspiring advice today. Thank you for sharing.

Megan: Thanks, Larry.

Michael: Yeah, thank you, Larry, and thank you guys for joining us on Lead to Win. Join us next time when we’ll tell you what to do when you feel overwhelmed. Ever been there? Until then, lead to win.