Failure: How a Leadership Mindset Helps You Fail Better

November 29, 2017
November 29, 2017 Amy Burns

The idea of learning to love your failures has a long history. Just think of Thomas Edison and his journey to the first light bulb. But since the financial crash a decade ago “embrace failure” has become one of the mantras of modern business. Failure even has its own conference, FailCon, a course at Smith College called “Failing Well” and Dominos Pizza adopted “Failure is an option” as an advertising slogan. Failure seems to be doing pretty well for itself.

So you’d think organizations and leaders would be encouraging looking honestly at failures and how teams can learn from those failures. Well, we may know embracing failure helps us succeed in the long term. But in the real world outside of management advice and business opinion pieces, failing is still a big problem in many businesses.

The stakes are often high and mistakes seem too costly. So even if we know failure helps us learn and innovate we struggle to actually see beyond the disappointment and costs of failure. And because of that new ideas don’t get tried or tested. Our fear of failure means we fail to make progress.

How can we change the way organizations think about failure?

A Growth Mindset Shows Us How to Embrace Failure

Carol Dweck’s work on developing a growth mindset can help us out here. Dweck’s research on learning shows people with a fixed mindset see their abilities and failures as set in stone. If I failed at something it’s because I’m just not good at it. And I’ll probably fail at similar tasks as well. A growth mindset, on the other hand, sees failure as part of the pathway to learning.

When kids are learning to ride bikes and they fall off, the ones who think they’re no good at riding a bike are showing a fixed mindset. The kids who think they can’t ride a bike… yet are showing a growth mindset.

A growth mindset is all about the ‘yet’.

We all have a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets in different aspects of our lives and work. The key is that a growth mindset can be developed.  It’s not something we’re either born with or not. But it does take work.

From a Growth Mindset to a Leadership Mindset

Developing a growth mindset is a key part of looking at failure as a learning moment. And the way Dweck conceptualizes a fixed and growth mindset is useful in a learning environment. I’d like to take the growth mindset concept a little bit further and into the realm of a leadership mindset in the workplace. Think of it as applying a growth mindset to the idea of a growth mindset, if you will.

In my work on growth mindset with a major software company we explore how a growth mindset is the learning aspect of a leadership mindset. A leadership mindset encompasses a growth mindset, and the advantage of a leadership mindset is you can operationalize it in a business context.

A Leadership Mindset Re-imagines Failure

I’ve written before about the value of a leadership mindset, and how it forms the bedrock of everything I do. At its core a leadership mindset is about developing a personal leadership practice that’s born out of seven qualities. When it comes to re-imagining our failures the most useful of those seven are genuine curiosity, observing without judgment, and enterprise thinking.

Let’s take a look at those leadership mindset qualities that help us to fail better:

  • Genuine curiosity

The key to genuine curiosity is being comfortable in the unknown, and that helps us become comfortable with failure. When we practise genuine curiosity we lose our attachment to our personal ideas—successes and failures alike. And once we can look at mistakes and failures from a place of genuine curiosity we can see a way forward much more clearly.

  • Observing without judgment

I often say observing without judgment is about how we look at other people’s ideas. If we observe without judgment we understand others can be right too, and approach them with a generosity of spirit. Overcoming a fear of failure, then, is the practice of observing ourselves without judgment first.

  • Enterprise thinking

This is a quality that helps teams cultivate innovation rather than inhibit themselves by fearing failure. Enterprise thinking means seeing the bigger picture and encouraging problem solving as a team. Couple it with genuine curiosity and observing without judgment and a team is on its way to a mindset that sees failure as part of the problem-solving process instead of a disastrous end point.

Developing these qualities allows us to build not only a growth mindset but a leadership mindset. It helps us to change our perspective on failure. It does this by allowing failure to happen and then building on it. Samuel Beckett isn’t often touted as a business guru, but when he said “fail again, fail better” he was right.

 

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